A new study using data from a pair of gravity-measuring NASA satellites found on 12 February 2013 that large parts of the arid Middle East region lost freshwater reserves rapidly during the past decade. Scientists at the University of California at Irvine found that 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 percent of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.
Since 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 essential. GRACE is providing a global picture of water storage trends and is invaluable when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.
GRACE is like having a giant scale in the sky. Within a given region, rising or falling water reserves alter Earth's mass, influencing how strong the local gravitational attraction is. By periodically measuring gravity regionally, GRACE tells us how much each region's water storage changes over time.
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.
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 1000 wells in response to the 2007 drought, a number that does not include the numerous private wells landowners also very likely drilled.
Water management is a complex issue in the Middle East, an area that already is dealing with limited water resources and competing stakeholders said Kate Voss, lead author of the study and a water policy fellow with the University of California's Center for Hydrological Modeling in Irvine, which Famiglietti directs.
GRACE is a joint mission with the German Aerospace Center and the German Research Center for Geosciences, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin. For more about GRACE, visit: