NASA satellite data find freshwater losses in Middle East

by Staff Reporter | February 12th, 2013

A new study using data from a pair of gravity-measuring NASA satellites reportedly finds that large parts of the arid Middle East region lost freshwater reserves rapidly during the past decade.

Because obtaining ground-based data in the area is difficult, satellite data, such as that from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) satellites, are reportedly essential

Scientists at the University of California at Irvine (UC Irvine); NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Md.; and the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., found during a seven-year period beginning in 2003, parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet (144 cubic kilometers) of its total stored freshwater. That is almost the amount of water in the Dead Sea. The researchers attribute about 60% of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.

The findings are the result of one of the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region. Because obtaining ground-based data in the area is difficult, satellite data, such as that from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) satellites, are reportedly essential. Grace is providing a global picture of water storage trends and is reportedly invaluable when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.

“Grace data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India,” said Jay Famiglietti, principle investigator of the study and a hydrologist and professor at UC Irvine. “The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.”

Famiglietti said Grace is like having a giant scale in the sky.

“Grace really is the only way we can estimate groundwater storage changes from space right now,” Famiglietti said.

The team calculated about one-fifth of the observed water losses resulted from soil drying up and snowpack shrinking, partly in response to the 2007 drought. Loss of surface water from lakes and reservoirs accounted for about another fifth of the losses. The majority of the water lost — approximately 73 million acre feet (90 cubic kilometers) — was due to reductions in groundwater.

“That’s enough water to meet the needs of tens of millions to more than a hundred million people in the region each year, depending on regional water use standards and availability,” said Famiglietti.

Famiglietti said when a drought reduces an available surface water supply, irrigators and other water users turn to groundwater supplies. For example, the Iraqi government drilled about 1,000 wells in response to the 2007 drought, a number that does not include the numerous private wells landowners also very likely drilled.

“The Middle East just does not have that much water to begin with, and it’s a part of the world that will be experiencing less rainfall with climate change,” said Famiglietti. “Those dry areas are getting dryer. The Middle East and the world’s other arid regions need to manage available water resources as best they can.”

“Groundwater is like your savings account,” Rodell said. “It’s okay to draw it down when you need it, but if it’s not replenished, eventually it will be gone.”

Grace is a joint mission with the German Aerospace Centre and the German Research Centre for Geosciences, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin.

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