Our water use raises sea levels

A new article in Nature Geoscience attributes 42% of recent sea level rise to discharge of groundwater to the oceans by human activities.

Pokhrel, Y.N. et al., 2012. Model estimates of sea-level change due to anthropogenic impacts on terrestrial water storage. Nature Geoscience, advance online publication.


Global sea level has been rising over the past half century, according to tide-gauge data. Thermal expansion of oceans, melting of glaciers and loss of the ice masses in Greenland and Antarctica are commonly considered as the largest contributors, but these contributions do not entirely explain the observed sea-level rise. Changes in terrestrial water storage are also likely to affect sea, but comprehensive and reliable estimates of this contribution, particularly through human water use, are scarce. Here, we estimate sea-level change in response to human impacts on terrestrial water storage by using an integrated model that simulates global terrestrial water stocks and flows (exclusive to Greenland and Antarctica) and especially accounts for human activities such as reservoir operation and irrigation. We find that, together, unsustainable groundwater use, artificial reservoir water impoundment, climate-driven changes in terrestrial water storage and the loss of water from closed basins have contributed a sea-level rise of about 0.77 mm yr−1 between 1961 and 2003, about 42% of the observed sea-level rise. We note that, of these components, the unsustainable use of groundwater represents the largest contribution.

So all we need to do is stop irrigating and the problem goes away …

It is based on computer modelling — do you believe it?

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