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Twin Satellites Track Global Freshwater Trends

Cataract Falls, Mount Tamalpais, California March 1, 2009 (Photo by Alan Grinberg) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Cataract Falls, Mount Tamalpais, California March 1, 2009 (Photo by Alan Grinberg) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis

GREENBELT, Maryland, May 17, 2018 (Maximpact.com News) – Earth’s wet land areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier due to a range of factors, including human water management, climate change and natural cycles.

In a first-of-its-kind study, scientists have combined an array of NASA satellite observations of Earth with data on human activities to map locations where freshwater is changing around the globe and to determine why.

The study was published Wednesday in the journal “Nature.

Matt Rodell analyzes GRACE data at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. (Photo by Bill Hrybyk / NASA) Public domain

Matt Rodell analyzes GRACE data at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. (Photo by Bill Hrybyk / NASA) Public domain

A team led by Matt Rodell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, used 14 years of observations from the U.S./German-led Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft mission to track global trends in freshwater in 34 regions around the world.

To understand why these trends emerged, they needed to pull in satellite precipitation data from the Global Precipitation Climatology Project, NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat imagery, irrigation maps, and published reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.

Only through analysis of the combined data sets were the scientists able to get a full understanding of the reasons for Earth’s freshwater changes as well as the sizes of those trends.

Launched in 2002 as a joint mission with NASA and the German Aerospace Center <dlr.de/en>, the identical twin GRACE satellites weighed Earth’s fresh water from space. The satellites respond to changes in Earth’s gravitation field that signal shifts in the movement of water across and under Earth’s surface.

“This is the first time that we’ve used observations from multiple satellites in a thorough assessment of how freshwater availability is changing, everywhere on Earth,” said Rodell.

“A key goal was to distinguish shifts in terrestrial water storage caused by natural variability – wet periods and dry periods associated with El Niño and La Niña, for example – from trends related to climate change or human impacts, like pumping groundwater out of an aquifer faster than it is replenished,” he said.

“Accurate accounting of changes in freshwater availability is essential for predicting regional food supplies, human and ecosystem health, energy generation and social unrest,” the authors write. “Groundwater is particularly difficult to monitor and manage because aquifers are vast and unseen, yet groundwater meets the domestic needs of roughly half of the world’s population and boosts food supply by providing for 38 percent of global consumptive irrigation water demand.”

“Nearly two-thirds of terrestrial aquatic habitats are being increasingly threatened, while the precipitation and river discharge that support them are becoming more variable. A recent study estimates that almost five billion people live in areas where threats to water security are likely – a situation that will only be exacerbated by climate change, population growth and human activities,” the authors state, concluding, “The key environmental challenge of the 21st century may be the globally sustainable management of water resources.”

Twin satellites launched in March 2002, made detailed measurements of Earth's gravity field which are leading to discoveries about gravity and Earth's freshwater systems that could have far-reaching benefits to society and the world's population. Artist's concept of Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) Public domain

Twin satellites launched in March 2002, made detailed measurements of Earth’s gravity field which are leading to discoveries about gravity and Earth’s freshwater systems that could have far-reaching benefits to society and the world’s population. Artist’s concept of Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) Public domain

“What we are witnessing is major hydrologic change,” said co-author Jay Famiglietti from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

“GRACE is not looking at the ground,” says Famiglietti, now at the University of California-Irvine. “It’s feeling the ground.”

Famiglietti commented that while water loss in some regions, like the melting ice sheets and alpine glaciers, is clearly driven by warming climate, it will require more time and data to determine the driving forces behind other patterns of freshwater change.

“The pattern of wet-getting-wetter, dry-getting-drier during the rest of the 21st century is predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models, but we’ll need a much longer dataset to be able to definitively say whether climate change is responsible for the emergence of any similar pattern in the GRACE data,” he said.

But the GRACE satellite observations alone cannot tell Rodell, Famiglietti and their colleagues what was causing the apparent trends.

“We examined information on precipitation, agriculture and groundwater pumping to find a possible explanation for the trends estimated from GRACE,” said co-author Hiroko Beaudoing of Goddard and the University of Maryland in College Park.

For instance, although pumping groundwater for agricultural uses is a significant contributor to freshwater depletion throughout the world, groundwater levels are also sensitive to cycles of persistent drought or rainy conditions.

Famiglietti noted that such a combination was likely the cause of the groundwater depletion observed in California’s Central Valley from 2007 to 2015, when decreased groundwater replenishment from rain and snowfall combined with increased pumping for agriculture.

Southwestern California lost four gigatons of freshwater per year during the same period. A gigaton of water would fill 400,000 Olympic swimming pools.

A majority of California’s freshwater comes in the form of rainfall and snow that collect in the Sierra Nevada snowpack and then is managed as it melts into surface waters through a series of reservoirs. When natural cycles lead to less precipitation and cause diminished snowpack and surface waters, people rely on groundwater more heavily.

Downward trends in freshwater seen in Saudi Arabia also reflect agricultural pressures. From 2002 to 2016, the region lost 6.1 gigatons per year of stored groundwater. Imagery from Landsat satellites shows an explosive growth of irrigated farmland in the arid landscape from 1987 to the present, which may explain the increased drawdown.

The team’s analyses also identified large, decade-long trends in terrestrial freshwater storage that do not appear to be directly related to human activities. Natural cycles of high or low rainfall can cause a trend that is unlikely to persist, Rodell said.

An example is Africa’s western Zambezi basin and Okavango Delta, a vital watering hole for wildlife in northern Botswana. In this region, water storage increased at an average rate of 29 gigatons per year from 2002 to 2016. This wet period during the GRACE mission followed at least two decades of dryness. Rodell believes it is a case of natural variability that occurs over decades in this region of Africa.

The successor to GRACE, called GRACE Follow-On, a joint mission with the German Research Centre for Geosciences , currently is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California undergoing final preparations for launch no earlier than May 22.

Featured Image: Dust storm heading for Mungeranie, South Australia January 31, 2010 (Photo by Sydney Oats) Creative Commons license via Flickr


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