Ground and surface water lost during the extended drought in the southwest are having unexpected and unusual impacts. The 18 month-long drought in southern California has resulted in land upheaval of slightly more than half of an inch, recorded in the mountains. Apparently the estimated 63 billion gallons of water lost has had an effect on land masses similar to lifting a weight off of a spring. Scripps University research, supported by the United States Geological Society and published in the journal “Science” (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2014/08/20/science.1260279.abstract?sid=98330e42-e52b-474f-b03d-814fdbd2f7e6), has been able to track changes in freshwater quantities using a sophisticated network of GPS sensors. This particular study has honed in on snowpack amounts in the Sierra Nevada mountains which are critical to the water needs and usage in southern California. Although the implications of this data are unclear, the ability to collect water loss data in regions where no direct access is available can be very useful.
Researchers first noticed that something may be amiss when observing the National Science Foundation’s Plate Boundary Observatory. GPS sensors installed in western mountains appeared to have risen in altitude since the advent of the drought in 2003. Data subsequently recorded shows exaggerated changes following the progression and increase in severity of the drought. These finding were incidental to the original purpose of the study. The sensors were meant to be tools to track and monitor water loss in remote areas where empirical data collection is contraindicated, and due to their placement and monitoring were able to record changes extracurricular to their intent but also very valuable and interesting.
Changing precipitation regimes, evaporation and decreased snowpack are affecting freshwater stores all over the country but no region feels it as strongly as the southwest. Water is critical to life on earth, conservation is rapidly becoming vital. We can all do our part by limiting the amount of water we use, educating ourselves on means and methods of water conservation and speaking up; get involved locally and encourage your community to protect its natural resources.