Global groundwater depth

The single most vital resource for human survival is clean, fresh drinking water. For a large proportion of the world’s population that right is not guaranteed, with harrowing consequences especially for children under 5-years old. Without careful processing surface water can only rarely be assumed fit to drink, especially in areas with dense populations of people, livestock or wildlife. Groundwater, on the other hand, has generally passed through aerated upper soil layers before it ended up below the water table in an aquifer. In that passage it is filtered and subject to various oxidising processes, both chemical and organic, that renders it a great deal more free of pathogens than standing or running surface water. Remarkably, a common mineral in any oxidised soil horizon is goethite, an iron hydroxide, which is capable of adsorbing a variety of potentially damaging ions.  So, of all fresh water that stored beneath the surface is the safest for people to drink.

By its very nature groundwater is hidden and requires both geological exploration and the drilling or digging of wells before it can become a resource. Areas underlain by simple stratiform sediments or lava flows present far less of a challenge than do geological settings with complex structures or that are dominated by ancient crystalline basement rocks. Time and again, however, crises in water supply arise from drought or sudden displacements of  populations a great deal faster than the pace of groundwater exploration or development needed to cope with shortages. Were the potential for subsurface supplies known beforehand relief would be both quicker and more effective than it is at present.

Image of simulated depth to water table for Africa (Courtesy of Y. Fan, Rutgers University, USA)

Image of simulated depth to water table for Africa (Courtesy of Y. Fan, Rutgers University, USA)

Thanks to three geoscientists from Rutgers University, USA and the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, (Fan, Y et al. 2013. Global patterns of groundwater table depth. Science, v. 339, p. 940-943) a start has been made in quantifying the availability of groundwater worldwide. They have modelled how the likely depth of the water table may vary beneath the inhabited continents. As a first input they digitised over 1.5 million published records of water table depths. Of course, that left huge gaps, even in economically highly developed areas. There is also bias in hydrogeological data towards shallow depths as most human settlements are above easily accessible groundwater.

To fill in the gaps and assess the deeper reaches of groundwater Fan et al. adapted an existing model that assumes groundwater depth to be forced by climate, topography and ultimately by sea-level. It is based on algorithms that predict groundwater flow after its infiltration from the surface. Such an approach leaves out drawdown by human interference and is at a spatial resolution that removes local complexities. The influence of terrain relies on the near-global elevation data acquired by NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) in February 2000, resampled to approximately 1 km spatial resolution, supplemented by the less accurate Japan/US ASTER GDEM produced photogrammetrically from stereo- image pairs. Other input data are assumptions about variation in hydraulic conductivity, which is reduced to a steady decrease with depth, models of infiltration from the surface based on global rainfall and evapotranspiration patterns and those of surface drainage and slopes. No attempt was made to input geological information

The results have been adjusted using actual water-table depths as a means of calibration across climate zones on all inhabited continents. The article itself is not accessible without a Science subscription, but the supplementary materials that detail how the work was done are available to the public, and include remarkably detailed maps of simulated water table depths for all continents except Antarctica.  The detail is much influenced by terrain to create textures that override climate, which might suggests that the results flatter to deceive. Yet the modelling does result in valleys and broad basins of unconsolidated sediment showing shallower depths that tallies with the tendency for less infiltration where slopes are steep and run-off faster. The fact that the degree of fit between model and known hydrogeology is high does suggest that at the regional scale the maps are very useful points of departure for more detailed work that brings in lithological and structural information.


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