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Surprising Science

Tracking Water Shortages From Space

Scientists have been using small variations in the Earth’s gravity to identify trouble spots around the globe where people are making unsustainable demands on groundwater. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Researchers at the University of California are beginning to get a better idea of how much water people across the globe are consuming and from where they are drawing it. Using twin satellites orbiting the Earth that measure gravitational fluctuation, Dr. Jay Famiglietti says the rate of water use in many places, southern California and India among them, is unsustainable. Grace, as the experiment is known, sees “all of the change in ice, all of the change in snow and water storage, all of the surface water, all of the soil moisture, all of the groundwater,” Dr. Famiglietti explained.

What’s the Big Idea?

What are the causes and consequences of water shortage? Population growth, water contamination and global warming mean that while the demand for water is increasing, the availability of fresh water is decreasing. The consequences have yet to reveal themselves, but are potentially devastating. Aquifers shared by countries hostile to each other, India and Pakistan, for example, could becomes sources of future conflict. In the United States, it means governments must adapt and make difficult decisions about water availability and distribution. 


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