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Epic Drought in West is Literally Moving Mountains

Climate change is driving the Greenland Ice Sheet to melt, which is contributing to sea level rise. But imagine that the same amount of water melting from Greenland each year is being lost in California and the rest of the West because of the epic drought there.

What happens? The land in the West begins to rise.

In fact, some parts of California’s mountains have been uplifted as much as 15 millimeters (about 0.6 inches) in the past 18 months because the massive amount of water lost in the drought is no longer weighing down the land, causing it to rise a bit like an uncoiled spring, a new study shows.

Death Valley, Calif.
Credit: QQ Li/flickr

For the first time, scientists are now able to measure how much surface and groundwater is lost during droughts by measuring how much the land rises as it dries. Those are the conclusions of the new study published Aug. 21 in the journal Science by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the the University of California-San Diego.

The drought that is devastating California and much of the West has dried the region so much that 240 gigatons worth of surface and groundwater have been lost, roughly the equivalent to a 3.9-inch layer of water over the entire West, or the annual loss of mass from the Greenland Ice Sheet, according to the study.

While some of California’s mountains have risen by about 0.6 inches since early 2013, the West overall has risen by an average of about 0.157 inches.

“Groundwater is a load on the Earth’s crust,” said Klaus Jacob, a seismologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., who is unaffiliated with the study. “A load compresses the crust elastically, hence it subsides. When you take that load away (by the drought) the crust decompresses and the surface rises. From the amount of rising, one can estimate the amount of the water deficit.”

The drought-related uplifting was discovered when researchers were analyzing data from GPS stations within the National Science Foundation’s Plate Boundary Observatory. One researcher noticed that all of the GPS stations moved upward since 2003, coinciding with the timing of the current drought.

But most of the movement occurred since last year as the West’s drought has become more and more extreme, said Duncan Agnew, a professor at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC-San Diego, and a study co-author.

“The implications of this have yet to play out,” Agnew said. “What we’ve shown is that there is a measurement technique we can use to get a total water loss — water loss in places where we have no direct measurements.”

Low levels on Lake Mead, a major source of water in California.
Credit: Raquel Baranow/flickr

He said such uplifting likely occurs in every drought, but it has never been observed before because scientists did not have the tools to detect the uplifting until now.

“That’s why this study is interesting,” Agnew said. “We can use this set of tools, which were installed for a different purpose in order to monitor water changes.”

He said the uplifting likely has no significant effect on earthquake potential in California and elsewhere even though loss of ground and surface water has added stress to major faults in the region.

“The total amount of stress that’s been added in the last 18 months from drought is the same amount of stress that’s added every week because of plate techtonics,” he said.

Jacob said the study shows that the changes in the elevation of the landscape and the stress on faults are so small the effect will be extremely minor.

But, Jacob said, the significance of the study is that it shows a new way for scientists to estimate total water loss during times of drought, which would be more difficult to estimate without being able to detect how much the land is being uplifted in dry years.

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By Han Song (Kaneohe, Hawaii 96744)
on August 21st, 2014

I have a question. As climatologists say the “big one” may be coming soon for California and people say that California will “break off” into the Pacific ocean, I wish to know from a professional stance if the “big one” will create a epic level tsunami for the Hawaiian Islands and if so, what are the odds?  If California sustains a giant earthquake from these extreme geographic conditions, what are the chances that it will just affect California or create that giant tsunami for Hawaii?  Please let me know. Thank you.

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By Alan Cohen (East Dundee, IL 60118)
on August 22nd, 2014

As far as I know, there is a finite supply of water on the planet. Even if the water is not on the west coast of the US, it has to be somewhere. Water can not just vanish from the earth. There should theoretically be a way to get water to where it is needed from other areas of the country. With so many folks in so many states out of work, we should have a wpa to put people to work constructing pipe lines to bring water from the east to the west. Solve unemployment, draught, and associated water shortage problems with one stroke. But that would require the government to actually do something constructive, like that will ever happen.

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By Woody Hess (El Dorado, KS 67042)
on August 23rd, 2014

I’m with Alan, it’s worked before, go back to the tried and true.  If we can pump oil from Alaska, why not water from the yearly floods in the east, to Lake Mead??  Oh yeah, it’s not oil, silly me!!

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By Gerald Bollinger (11385)
on August 23rd, 2014

I agree with you 100%.  This would have happened under any president before Ford.  This country has lost the will to fight for survival or much of anything else.

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By Carolyn James (Nashville TN 37209)
on August 23rd, 2014

The enormous amounts of water needed in the West could not be replaced through a pipe, or many pipes. No other land area has enough extra water to send to a drought area. Maybe you can figure out how to take the salt out of ocean water?

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By Al Shumate (Dublin, VA 24084)
on August 22nd, 2014

Maybe if enough ice melts off of Greenland the Vikings will move back. That’s why they moved out to start with because the ice moved in.

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By Cindy Cantlon (Reno NV 89509)
on August 22nd, 2014

I think Alan Cohen has the perfect answer to our countries major problems, Draught and Unemployment.
Both problems will only grow worse unless action is taken to resolve them. Having a wpa to work construction and bring the excess and destructive water from the east to the west is the only logical and doable solution.
Would starting a petition, many in every state, help to force the government to create this program?
I would love to start a petition right now and I would have the help of several attorneys. Is there anyone reading this
who agrees we could make it happen? My generation stopped a war and had a president impeached, We are still active and have more time to work on this drastically needed action.

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on August 24th, 2014

Hi Cindy, I know that others aside from Alan and yourself have periodically wondered essentially the same thing. But for various reasons – not least of which the impressive scale – as far as I can tell major pipeline solutions don’t look practical and in the one case I know of it was in fact officially reported that such a scheme could even be costlier than creating and operating large scale seawater desalination facilities in CA. Over 20 years ago the US government Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) gave consideration to a seriously proposed scheme to transfer water from Alaska to CA via a subsea pipeline. In the conclusion of that particular report, and among other things, they stated: “…some experts polled by OTA maintain that interregional water transfers can at best only delay the inevitable reckoning with how to maintain a sustainable society in an inherently arid southern California.”  That was in 1992. I suspect that if a group of similar experts were asked their opinions today they might say something similar but with reference not just to southern CA but to all of it and probably also a good chunk of other parched western states.

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By Ro Scott (Ventura, CA 93003)
on September 1st, 2014

We could have gotten a start in California in 1992 when the above quoted report came out. That would have required forethought, laws, regulations, codes and public education. All that without an immediate payoff. It’s difficult, I think, to generate the political will to have your constituents suffer without a quicker turnaround time on some kind of payoff.

Considered opinion: no one, rich, poor, corporate or not should be allowed to have turf (except public parks)  in this geographic region - it just takes too much water.
I’ve noticed that no one has put me in charge though!

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By Donald Dipthong (Dotsero, Colorado 81637)
on August 23rd, 2014

I wonder how such minute changes are measured, as mountains rise up

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