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More than half of the world’s largest lakes and reservoirs are losing water

More than half of the world’s largest lakes and reservoirs are losing water


Dry Little Washoe Lake in Nevada is seen in July 2021 after a prolonged drought – Copyright POOL/AFP Tolga Akmen

More than half of the world’s largest lakes and reservoirs now hold less water than they did three decades ago.

Researchers have found that the main causes are climate change and human activities, according to a study published in Nature Review on May 18, 2023. Only about a quarter of lakes and reservoirs now store more water than they did in 1992.

Scientists used three decades of satellite observations, climate data and hydrological models dating back to 1992, and while the news seems grim, this new method can help water managers and communities make better decisions.

The water levels of 1,972 of the world’s largest lakes were tracked between 1992 and 2020. The researchers found that 53% of the lakes had lost water during this period, with the total loss equivalent to 17 lakes Meads, the largest reservoir in America.

Lead author Fangfang Yao, a visiting CIRES researcher, now a climate researcher at the University of Virginia, said: “This is the first comprehensive assessment of trends and drivers of global variability in lake water storage based on a range of satellites and models.

This suggests that the global drying trend is more widespread than previously thought, Yao added.

Iran's Lake Urmia, pictured in 2018, has been shrinking since 1995
Lake Urmia in Iran, photographed in 2018, has been shrinking since 1995 – Copyright AFP Sakis MITROLIDIS

The effects of climate change are more pronounced

Previous research tends to show a pattern of dry regions becoming drier and wet regions becoming wetter, as the effects of climate change become more prominent, Live Science reports.

But the new research shows that lakes are drying up in the humid tropics as well as in arid regions. This suggests that the global drying trend is more widespread than previously thought, Yao said.

Water loss from the lake is a serious problem, according to the research team. Lakes and reservoirs provide important sources of water for drinking, irrigation, hydroelectricity and recreation.

The ecosystem of the lakes also suffers, leaving fish populations and migrating birds at risk when the water runs out. And when salt lakes, such as Utah’s Great Salt Lake, dry up, the newly exposed lake bed can become a source of toxic dust storms that degrade nearby soil and cause health problems.

The continued drying up of Earth’s lakes depends on the complex interplay of various factors. But this new study can give us an idea of ​​what might happen under various circumstances, Yao said.

Yao says the impact of global warming and human water consumption could become problematic. If we continue [with] business as usual and withdrawing the water to meet our maximum needs, well make the situation worse, he said.




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