NASA Outlines Recent Changes in Earth's Freshwater Distribution

Dec 13, 2006

Recent space observations of freshwater storage by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) are providing a new picture of how Earth's most precious natural resource is distributed globally and how it is changing.

Researchers are using GRACE's almost five-year data record to estimate seasonal water storage variations in more than 50 river basins that cover most of Earth's land area. The variations reflect changes in water stored in rivers, lakes, reservoirs; in floodplains as snow and ice; and underground in soils and aquifers.

"Grace is providing a first-ever look at the distribution of freshwater storage on the continents," said Jay Famiglietti, professor of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine. "With longer time series, we can distinguish long-term trends from natural seasonal variations and track how water availability responds to natural climate variations and climate change."

Several African basins, such as the Congo, Zambezi and Nile, show significant drying over the past five years. In the United States, the Mississippi and Colorado River basins show water storage increases during that time. Such information is vital for managing water resources in vulnerable parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, since increasing populations and standards of living place demands on water resources that are often unsustainable. The data can be used to make more informed regional water management decisions.

The twin GRACE satellites monitor tiny month-to-month changes in Earth's gravity field that are primarily caused by the movement of water in Earth's land, ocean, ice and atmosphere reservoirs. Hydrologists are analyzing GRACE data to identify possible trends in precipitation changes, groundwater depletion and snow and glacier melt rates, and to understand their underlying causes.

Matt Rodell, a hydrologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., said GRACE data correspond well with ground observations. As a result, hydrologists can now apply GRACE data in ways that will impact regional water management. "GRACE data improve our understanding of the water cycle and simulations of soil moisture, snow and groundwater in computer models," he said. "This is a key step toward better weather, stream flow, flood, drought and water resource forecasts worldwide."

Michael Watkins, GRACE project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., said Grace is the only element in NASA's broad water cycle research program that measures changes in all types of water storage. "GRACE detects water storage changes from Earth's surface to its deepest aquifers, water can't hide from it," he said.

GRACE's abilities to detect water are particularly vital for the emerging field of groundwater remote sensing. "Remote sensing of groundwater has been a Holy Grail for hydrologists because it is stored beneath the surface and is not detected by most sensors," said Famiglietti. "Outside of the United States and a few other developed nations, it is not well monitored. It's been speculated that many of Earth's key aquifers are being depleted due to over-exploitation, but a lack of data has hampered efforts to quantify how aquifer levels are changing and take the steps necessary to avoid depleting them. With additional data, such as measurements of surface water and soil moisture, we can use GRACE to solve this problem."

GRACE is also allowing scientists to estimate another key component of the water cycle for the first time: water discharged by freshwater streams from Earth's continents. Stream flow measurements are often not shared for economic, political or national defense reasons. GRACE measurements of the total water discharged by continental streams are important for monitoring the availability of freshwater and understanding how surface water runoff from continents contributes to rises in global sea level.

Scientists from NASA and the University of California, Irvine, are presenting their research today during the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, Calif.

GRACE is a partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The University of Texas Center for Space Research, Austin, has overall mission responsibility. JPL developed the two GRACE satellites. DLR provided the launch, and the GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, Germany, operates the GRACE mission.

Source: NASA

Explore further: NASA provides double vision on Typhoon Matmo

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

GPS also helps to analyze global water resources

Mar 19, 2014

WaterGAP (Water Global Assessment and Prognosis) is a hydrological model used to model water shortage, groundwater depletion, and floods and droughts (e.g. as impacted by climate change) over the land area of the globe. The ...

Recommended for you

Fires in the Northern Territories July 2014

8 hours ago

Environment Canada has issued a high health risk warning for Yellowknife and surrounding area because of heavy smoke in the region due to forest fires. In the image taken by the Aqua satellite, the smoke ...

How much magma is hiding beneath our feet?

9 hours ago

Molten rock (or magma) has a strong influence on our planet and its inhabitants, causing destructive volcanic eruptions and generating some of the giant mineral deposits. Our understanding of these phenomena ...

Oso disaster had its roots in earlier landslides

12 hours ago

The disastrous March 22 landslide that killed 43 people in the rural Washington state community of Oso involved the "remobilization" of a 2006 landslide on the same hillside, a new federally sponsored geological study concludes.

User comments : 0