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Groundwater resides beneath the soil surface in permeable rock, clay and sand as illustrated in this conceptual image. The map, showing groundwater withdrawals as a percentage of groundwater recharge, is based on state-level estimates of annual withdrawals and recharge reported by India's Ministry of Water Resources. The averaging function (spatial weighting) used to estimate terrestrial water storage changes from GRACE data is mapped. Groundwater comes from the natural percolation of precipitation and other surface waters down through Eartha€™s soil and rock, accumulating in aquifers -- cavities and layers of porous rock, gravel, sand, or clay. Groundwater levels do not respond to changes in weather as rapidly as lakes, streams, and rivers do. Changes in underground water masses affect gravity enough to provide a signal, such that changes in gravity can be translated into a measurement of an equivalent change in water.
With previous research in the United States having proven the accuracy of GRACE in detecting groundwater, Rodell and colleagues Isabella Velicogna, of NASAa€™s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California-Irvine, and James Famiglietti, of UC-Irvine, were looking for a region where they could apply the new technique. The northern Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana have all of the ingredients for groundwater depletion: staggering population growth, rapid economic development and water-hungry farms, which account for about 95 percent of groundwater use in the region.
Data provided by India's Ministry of Water Resources suggested groundwater use was exceeding natural replenishment, but the regional rate of depletion was unknown.


They found that groundwater levels have been declining by an average of one meter every three years (one foot per year). The loss is particularly alarming because it occurred when there were no unusual trends in rainfall.
As animated here, groundwater storage varied in northwestern India between 2002 and 2008, relative to the mean for the period.
The researchers examined data and models of soil moisture, lake and reservoir storage, vegetation and glaciers in the nearby Himalayas, in order to confirm that the apparent groundwater trend was real. The map shows groundwater changes in India during 2002-08, with losses in red and gains in blue, based on GRACE satellite observations.
Many aquifers extend hundreds of feet underground and in some instances have filled with water over the course of thousands of years.
According to Rodell and colleagues, it is being pumped and consumed by human activities -- principally to irrigate cropland -- faster than the aquifers can be replenished by natural processes. In some of these subterranean reservoirs, the water may be thousands to millions of years old; in others, water levels decline and rise again naturally each year.
So when groundwater is pumped for irrigation or other uses, recharge to the original levels can take months or years.


The twin satellites of GRACE can sense tiny changes in Eartha€™s gravity field and associated mass distribution, including water masses stored above or below Eartha€™s surface. More than 109 cubic km (26 cubic miles) of groundwater disappeared between 2002 and 2008 -- double the capacity of India's largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, and triple that of Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the United States. Halfway around the world, hydrologists, including Matt Rodell of NASA, have been hunting for it. They based their conclusions -- published in the August 20 issue of Nature -- on observations from NASAa€™s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).
As the satellites orbit 300 miles above Earth's surface, their positions change -- relative to each other -- in response to variations in the pull of gravity. The team analyzed six years of monthly GRACE gravity data for northern India to produce a time series of water storage changes beneath the regiona€™s land surface. The satellites fly roughly 137 miles apart, and microwave ranging systems measure every microscopic change in the distance between the two.



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