World Water Resources and Their Future: What a NASA mission GRACE has Told Us

Is there any way to save GRACE? – a question asked by the scientists who launched the twin satellites that have revolutionised our view of water on Earth. An improbable mission set to be 5 years, turned into a 15 year success, is soon to end its journey in space as the satellite is soon to run out of fuel. However unsexy science may be, the GRACE mission has opened our eyes to the harsh reality that the world’s water is being depleted, and we are yet to feel the true wrath of a world under threat. And we must do something!

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GRACE tracks the movement of water via it’s mass that is beyond human gaze, and is revealing hidden secrets of the water cycle. How bad can it be? We still have water coming out of the tap….

GRACE has deepened our understanding of water, in particular underground water. Since the start of the mission there are more and more locations where humans are pumping out groundwater faster than it is replenished. In 2015, their team published a comprehensive survey showing a third of Earth’s largest groundwater basins are being rapidly depleted. As our world’s population continues to grow, and water resources deplete, lack of access to water (clean or not), will only become more prevalent – that could mean more droughts, and more anxieties like those in Cape Town who faces Day Zero (although this has been pushed back to 2019).

Across the internet there are increasing number of pictures of the ice sheets melting, polar bears afloat on an ice cap, as if he’s surfing on a hot day. Since GRACE launched, it’s measurements show Greenland has been losing about 280 gigatons of ice per year on average – a bit less than twice the weight of Mount Everest, whilst Antarctica has lost slightly under 120 gigatons a year. And indications show that both melt rates are increasing.

But so what? Melting ice is causing our sea levels to rise, and as the climate warms so too does the seawater. The result? Islands like the Maldives may no longer be there in years to come – I apologise if your annual Easter holiday is there. Cities like Miami will have the only option to retreat, even if they pump millions of dollars into the city’s protections. Other cities that don’t have the money may not be so fortunate, and residents will be forced to look for residence elsewhere.

Lasting three times as long as originally planned the end of GRACE’s life is set to be imminent, whilst NASA and the GFZ have been working on a second GRACE mission called GRACE Follow-On (GRACE-FO) that is scheduled to be launched on 19th May 2018.

With GRACE, we have gained new insight into how global and regional water resources are evolving,” said Frank Webb, the GRACE-FO project scientist. Much of the data has been used to support advocation for the Paris Agreement 2015 that aims to keep the earth’s temperatures below rising 2 degrees Celsius, and have provided factual impetus for the launch of the UN Water Action Decade. Yet international agreements, and the work that GRACE has completed can only do so much. What they must do is spur action – action from citizens – you and me.

We can all take actions to halt the rate of water depletion and water scarcity as a result of climate change. Here are some everyday actions that you can make as a conscious global citizen:

  • Limit the number of baths that you take (spare the people around you and still shower at least)! An average bath uses 35 to 50 gallons of water whereas a 10-minute shower uses only 25 gallons (that’s time for two rounds of ‘wake me up before you go go’ (Wham) with two minutes for a hair wash).

  • Be a conscious eater: eat foods lower down the food chain – limit the number of times you eat meat a week as meat has an intensive water footprint (674 gallons of water for a single steak)! Meat Free Mondays might turn into a Meat Free Work Week!

  • Take public transport, or use your legs and walk or bike – they say nothing looks as good as toned legs.

  • Make sustainable choices – fashion is the second biggest industry for water consumption (after oil). I know I’m certainly guilty in popping in to Zara to buy this season ‘pinks’ or another pair of black jeans as the last ones don’t’ fit in quite the right way that they used to (whether this is the student weight or the washing machine that fades the dye). But we can all buy less, less often, better quality (preferably sustainable fashion or second hand / vintage baby!)

It may not be a ‘cool’ topic in mainstream media or around your friends, or may even seem hippy or left wing. But nature does not discriminate whether I am right wing or left wing, black or white, man or woman. We all have a duty to take up arms in this fight and make actions every day that lessen our global footprint, save energy and conserve water, for as cliché as it may seem to ‘save the world’. Whether water might be flooding through your doorstep, or you have water running out of your tap, we all have a duty to protect this one Grace of ‘God’ – the Earth – and the gift of all life – water.

You can even test your global water footprint here – it may surprise you. I know I still have some cutting back to do (mine was at 1280 gallons a day and I thought I conserved water):