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Breakthrough Research From Stanford Uses Satellites To 'See' Groundwater Levels Amid Drought

STANFORD (CBS SF) -- Researchers at Stanford University have come up with a way to measure the amount of groundwater in the Earth from readings taken hundreds of miles above the planet, a technique that could revolutionize management of groundwater resources.

Geophysicists at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment are using satellites to measure the slightest changes to the Earth's topography, indicating changes in groundwater levels.

The satellites use a radar technique to measure elevation on the Earth's surface down to the centimeter level.

According to the research published in Water Resources Research, scientists were able to compile water level measurements at three aquifers in Colorado based on observed changes in Earth's surface – and the data matched that from nearby monitoring wells.

"If we can get this working in between wells, we can measure groundwater levels across vast areas without using lots of on-the-ground monitors," lead author Jessica Reeves told the Stanford News Service.

Knowing precisely how much water is in the ground is the only way water resource managers can plan for future use. "Imagine your [bank] account was connected to someone else's account, and they were withdrawing from it without your knowing," Reeves told the Stanford News Service.

According to the report, currently the only way to monitor underground water levels is to use existing monitoring wells which are often unreliable or drill new wells – which can be expensive and time-consuming.

Water resource managers can use and share the data generated by the satellite readings to quickly assess the effects of drought and population increases on area water tables.

The breakthrough holds the potential for giving water resource managers worldwide valuable data as they plan for the effects of population increases and droughts on local water tables.

Eventually, researchers told the Stanford News Service the groundwater data could even measure seasonal changes in groundwater levels to allow local districts to determine levels for sustainable water use.


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