For thousands of years, irrigation has enabled farmers to grow crops that feed the world's population, and about 40 percent of that water comes from wells dug into the ground, rather than rivers and other bodies of open water. And that could mean that we're in big trouble.
A new article in Nature Climate Change by James Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns that most of the world's major aquifers in arid and semi-arid zones - the ones that rely the most on groundwater - are rapidly vanishing. The most worrisome fact: "Nearly all of these underlie the word's great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity."
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The places facing a groundwater shortfall include California's Central Valley, which is one of the nation's major sources of food. (Among other crops, it produces 85 percent of the carrots that Americans eat.)
Droughts such as the one currently affecting California are exacerbating the situation, because farmers are pumping water out of the ground at unprecedented rates to make up for the lack of rainfall and soil moisture.
Climate Progress warns that the result could be Dust-Bowlification of vital farmland.
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Famiglietti also warns that increasing shortages of groundwater could lead to other bad stuff: "Further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others. From North Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, regions where it is already common to drill over 2 km (kilometers) to reach groundwater, it is highly likely that disappearing groundwater could act as a flashpoint for conflict."