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Wind creates waves on the surface of the Gulf of Maine. Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Researchers have for the first time mapped an aquifer under the ocean, suggesting it and other water systems could be a new source of freshwater supply.

Details: The newly mapped aquifer is located off the East Coast, stretching from near Martha's Vineyard to the waters off Long Island and New Jersey.

The big picture: Millions of people face greater water stress from population growth, groundwater depletion and climate change. While the brackish water described in the study, published in Scientific Reports, would need to be desalinized before consumption, it would not require the energy-intensive process currently undertaken in some countries, such as Israel.

What they did: The researchers used new electromagnetic methods typically employed for mapping offshore oil and gas resources.

  • They deployed receivers to the seafloor to measure the electromagnetic fields below, and also towed a device behind the ship that emitted electromagnetic pulses and recorded the seafloor's responses to them.
  • Because saltwater is a better conductor of electromagnetic waves compared to freshwater, the aquifer showed up as a clear band of low conductance.

What they found: An aquifer system located within porous rock formations extending from the shoreline to about 50 miles off the coast of both survey locations.

  • The researchers note it may extend well beyond the study region, and the aquifer could be one that "rivals the largest onshore aquifers."
  • The aquifer isn't a trapped underground lake that can simply be tapped into like a straw, says lead author Chloe Gustafson, also of Columbia University. Instead, "it's more like a water-soaked sponge," she says.
  • This aquifer spans nearly 220 miles of the Atlantic Coast from end to end, and could hold at least 670 cubic miles of low-salinity groundwater.

The backstory: It's thought the groundwater originated during the end of the last glaciation, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower and mile-thick ice sheets retreated.

  • The glacial runoff formed offshore deltas, and eventually trapped pockets of water underneath them.
  • In a surprising finding, the researchers say the aquifer is also likely receiving some freshwater from the land via subterranean runoff, which raises the possibility it may be recharged over time.

The scientists had an inkling they would find groundwater in some of these areas based on previous pinprick-like drill holes that had been made to search for oil or study geological history in these locations.

  • Those boreholes had detected water's presence.
  • "It's like the difference between seeing a few pixels of an image (i.e. point drill hole measurements) and trying to infer what the image is, versus looking at a high resolution scan of the whole image...," study co-author Kerry Key of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University told Axios in an email.

Between the lines: A 2012 study found freshwater aquifers likely are present in Outer Continental Shelf regions of every continent. That finding combined with the new results could spur more surveys to search for tappable offshore groundwater reserves.

  • However, like groundwater on land, this water should be treated more like a savings account that can be quickly depleted.
  • Also, because the water lies within porous rocks, the geological consequences of pumping it out would need to be studied.

The bottom line: “The big thing that we want people to know is that this isn’t just an isolated incident off the coast of New Jersey and Martha's Vineyard,” Gustafson says.

While the brackish water contained in such an aquifer would need to be desalinized before consumption, it would not require the energy-intensive desalinization currently undertaken in some countries, such as Israel.

Go deeper

50 mins ago - World

Brazil senators vote to recommend criminal charges for Bolsonaro

Brazilian senators vote on probe into President Bolsonaro's handling of pandemic. Photo: Gustavo Minas/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A Brazilian Senate committee Tuesday voted to approve a report recommending President Jair Bolsonaro be charged with a raft of criminal indictments, including crimes against humanity over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, per AP.

Why it matters: Bolsonaro has become the face of a right-wing approach to the pandemic that includes repudiating vaccines and masks and resisting lockdowns and other mitigation measures. The Senate report holds him personally responsible for half of the country's 600,000 deaths.

Former Georgetown tennis coach pleads guilty to accepting admissions bribes

Gordon Ernst (left) former head tennis coach at Georgetown, outside a courthouse in Boston in 2019. Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A former Georgetown University head tennis coach has pleaded guilty Tuesday to bribery charges related to facilitating the admission of prospective applicants.

Why it matters: Gordon Ernst solicited and accepted bribes from William Singer, ringleader of the cheating scheme uncovered by Operation Varsity Blues, and families in exchange for helping prospective applicants get into Georgetown as student athletes, according to the Justice Department.

4 hours ago - Health

CDC says some immunocompromised people can get fourth COVID shot

Photo: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in updated guidelines Tuesday that some immunocompromised people who have received either Pfizer or Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines will be able to get a fourth shot.

Details: People over 18 who are "moderately to severely immunocompromised" and have received three doses of an mRNA vaccine may get a fourth shot (of either the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson vaccines) at least six months after getting their third Pfizer or Moderna dose, per the CDC.