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Expand chart
Adapted from M. Rodell et al., 2018, based on data from Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites; Map: Harry Stevens / Axios.

New research from NASA finds that human activities, including causing global warming and depleting groundwater for agriculture, are making for an increasingly water-stressed world. It's the first global accounting of trends in freshwater availability.

"No national, regional, or local water plan or assessment should overlook these estimates - they are the boundary conditions that shape water security."
— Marc Levy, a researcher at Columbia University's Earth Institute who was not involved in the new study

The big picture: Since 2002, a pair of NASA satellites has been taking precise measurements of changes in the Earth's gravitational field. The mission known as GRACE (short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) has allowed scientists to detect trends in ice sheet thickness, surface water depth, and groundwater depletion.

What they found: The study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, provides reasons to worry about the stability of parts of the globe, particularly the heavily populated Middle East and South Asia. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a global map of how freshwater availability is changing,” said lead author Matthew Rodell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He said the results show a "clear human fingerprint" on global freshwater availability.

What's happening: Of the 34 areas with prominent changes in freshwater availability, 8 of them were found to be due to climate change, and 14 were from other human activities, such as sucking groundwater out of aquifers for crops. Just 12 of the 34 areas were deemed to be due to natural variability alone.

Water winners and losers:

  • Hot spots of water loss include the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, which are losing mass as the world warms, the Middle East and South Asia, where drought and groundwater depletion have raised fears of conflicts, and the Southwest U.S.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet alone lost about 279 billion tons of freshwater per year between April 2002 and March 2016, the study found.
  • During the same period, the northern Middle East, including Syria and Iran, lost 32.1 billion tons of freshwater.
  • The researchers found gains in freshwater availability associated with dam projects in South America and China, as well as increases in parts of North America.
  • Those findings are consistent with climate projections showing that higher latitudes will get wetter while mid-latitudes and the tropics see less precipitation.

What it means: Scientists and policy experts say these findings have profound implications for the future of food availability, since so much water goes toward agriculture. “We need to remember that it’s not just water, it’s also water in food, in energy, in people,” said Jay Famiglietti, a study coauthor and researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

  • Experts in the security implications of climate change, including water availability, said the new study could be viewed as a map of potential future conflict, if cooperation to ensure adequate water supplies fails.

"“Some of the trends outlined in this study should raise red flags for policy-makers," said Caitlin Werrell, co-founder of The Center for Climate and Security, in an email. Werrell was not involved in the new study.

Coming soon: The GRACE satellites used for this study are no longer functional, but NASA is scheduled to launch a GRACE follow-on mission on May 22. The new satellites will allow researchers to extend their data records to 30 years, which is considered long enough to detect and attribute climate trends. It will also have slightly higher resolution, enabling more close-ups of water-stressed regions.

Go deeper

Texas abortion law remains in effect after appeals court ruling

Pro- and anti-abortion protesters outside the Supreme Court as arguments begin about the Texas abortion law on Capitol Hill in November. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A U.S. appeals court transferred a challenge to Texas' law banning most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy to the state supreme court in a 2-1 vote on Monday evening.

Why it matters: The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision means the country's most restrictive abortion law can remain in place for the time being.

At least 2 dead after Tonga volcano eruption and tsunami

A satellite image of the explosive eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano on Saturday. Photo: UNICEF/NOAA

At least two people are confirmed to have died in Tonga following the undersea volcanic eruption that sent tsunami waves toward the island nation and across the Pacific over the weekend, officials said Monday.

The big picture: Officials reported major damage along the western coast of the main island of Tongatapu, where the capital, Nuku'alofa, was covered in ash and dust, including on the runway of the airport. A New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told Axios over the phone that two people had been confirmed to have died in the disaster.

Airlines call for Biden admin's "immediate intervention" in 5G deployment

Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The CEOs of leading U.S. air cargo and passenger carriers on Monday warned the Biden administration there could be "catastrophic disruption" after AT&T and Verizon deploy a new 5G service this week.

Driving the news: They said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other top federal officials ahead of the C-Band 5G service's deployment Wednesday that "the nation's commerce will grind to a halt" and "could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas."

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