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Emerging trends in global freshwater availability

Freshwater availability is changing worldwide. Here we quantify 34 trends in terrestrial water storage observed by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites during 2002–2016 and categorize their drivers as natural interannual variability, unsustainable groundwater consumption, climate change or combinations thereof. Several of these trends had been lacking thorough investigation and attribution, including massive changes in northwestern China and the Okavango Delta. Others are consistent with climate model predictions. This observation-based assessment of how the world’s water landscape is responding to human impacts and climate variations provides a blueprint for evaluating and predicting emerging threats to water and food security.

Groundwater, soil moisture, surface waters, snow and ice are dynamic components of the terrestrial water cycle1,2,3. Although they are not static on an annual basis (as early water-budget analyses supposed), in the absence of hydroclimatic shifts or substantial anthropogenic stresses they typically remain range-bound. Recent studies have identified locations where terrestrial water storage (TWS; the sum of these five components) appears to be trending below previous ranges, notably where ice sheets or glaciers are diminishing in response to climate change4,5 and where groundwater is being withdrawn at an unsustainable rate6,7,8.


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