Freshwater—found in rivers, lakes, ice, and underground pools—is the basis for human drinking water and agriculture. More than any other energy source or substance, freshwater is the fuel for human society, and life on earth in general. Without freshwater, there can’t be life, period.
And according to a new study from NASA published in Nature today, earth’s freshwater is in a major state of flux. Wet areas are getting wetter, and dry areas are getting drier. Natural water seasons like El Nino and El Nina can only account for some of it: anthropogenic climate change and poor water management are messing with the limited amount of usable water we have.
The study found that climate change is melting gigatons of ice from the Arctic and Antarctic, contributing to rising sea-levels that threaten urban centers around the world. It also found that climate change makes inland, mid-latitude areas, such northwest China, more vulnerable to drying out.
From a political perspective, this should be a huge concern, especially taking poor water management practices into account. For instance, California didn’t manage its groundwater until it faced a devastating drought from 2011 to 2014. Worst case scenarios for water security can be devastating. In Syria, water shortages are largely believed to have driven its civil war—which has become a multi-year humanitarian crisis.
While these findings aren’t new, this is the first global study of its kind, involving 14 years of satellite data measuring water mass from up in space. Improved science that strengthens the link between human activity and global water flux could also give leverage to governing bodies, like the IPCC, in order to manage and regulate human activity more effectively.