Is the world about to run out of drinkable water? A new NASA report does not indicate we will all be dying of thirst in the near feature, but it does paint a grim picture of the state of the world’s largest underground aquifers.
According to the NASA report that used satellite imagery, 21 of the 37 largest aquifers in the world have passed their sustainability tipping points, and 13 are considered “significantly distressed.” The aquifers are located around the globe, from India to the United States, and more water is being drawn from the underground water reserves than is being replaced.
“Significant segments” of the world’s population “are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out,” NASA said. The depletion escalates during droughts.
Underground aquifers can take thousands of years to fill and only “recharge” from rainfall and snow melt slowly over time.
Although unknown to many Americans, aquifers are the source for much of our drinking water as well as the watering of crops – particularly out West and in the Heartland.
It’s the first study to comprehensively examine groundwater loss using data from space.
“Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient,” said principal investigator Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left.”
NASA experts added in the frightening report that the underground aquifer levels are part of a “long-term problem” that is only going to get worse.
The study used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites.
“The situation is quite critical,” Famiglietti told the media “The water table is dropping all over the world. There’s not an infinite supply of water.”
Drought conditions increase demand on the underground water reserves. California, which has been strapped with drought conditions for more than a year, has reportedly been tapping into the aquifer for about 60 percent of the water used in the state. Approximately 40 percent of the water used in California was typically drawn from the aquifer before the drought.
“We don’t actually know how much is stored in each of these aquifers. Estimates of remaining storage might vary from decades to millennia,” said Alexandra Richey, the lead author on both studies. “In a water-scarce society, we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly.”
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