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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Groundwater Deficit Out West

Source: NASA Earth Observatory

Long-term drought and aggressive seasonal wildfires have consumed property, lives, and farmland in the American West. The dry weather and blazes are battering regional economies and putting residents and agricultural businesses in several states on a path toward water restrictions. At least part of this story of water woes lies underground.

The map above combines data from the satellites of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) with other satellite and ground-based measurements to model the relative amount of water stored in underground aquifers in the continental United States. The wetness, or water content, is a depiction of the amount of groundwater on July 7, 2014, compared to the average from 1948 to 2009. Areas shown in blue have more abundant groundwater for this time of year than comparable weeks over the long-term, while shades of red depict deficits compared to this time of year.

The maps are an experimental product used by the U.S. Drought Monitor and supported by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The measurements are derived from observations of small changes in Earth’s mass and its gravity field—features that are affected by the movement and storage of water and ice around the planet.

The extent of drought in the American Southwest are reflected well in the GRACE map. California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Nebraska have been suffering from various degrees of long-term drought that has parched the land surface and prevented the replenishing of groundwater below.

However, some other odd juxtapositions appear. The Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington are suffering through raging wildfires, as months of hot weather have dried out forests. But according to the groundwater data, conditions underground are normal to wet—likely a reflection of the long lag between the accumulation and depletion of water underground and the changes in conditions on the surface. Those states had very wet winters, but the heat and dryness of spring and summer have not yet penetrated the underground storage.

Maps by Chris Poulsen, National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, based on data from Matt Rodell, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the GRACE science team. Caption by Mike Carlowicz.

Instrument(s): GRACE