Rising Seas and Falling Aquifers


Another Stimulating Program from the League’s Natural Resource Committee

The video for Ian Fenty’s  presentation is here.

The video for Jay Famiglietti’s presentation is here.

Dr. Ian Fenty, Climate Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, presented an overview of global warming conditions titled “Warming Oceans, Melting Ice and Rising Seas.” Fenty’s research will show us that not only are the earth’s oceans warming at the predicted rate, but also there is a dramatic rise in the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets. This uptick is leading to a new NASA mission to investigate what is happening in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Prof. Jay Famiglietti, hydrologist and professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, focused upon local water stress in his talk titled “Satellite Observations of Freshwater Availability during the Epic California Drought.” Famiglietti will increase our knowledge of California’s snowpack, soil moisture, stream flow, reservoir and groundwater levels, all of which are at near record lows. He discussed the efficacy of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, as well as the future of water and food security in California and the United States. Famiglietti is also a Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In last month’s Voter, a flyer with a stranded polar bear announced modestly, “Speakers will use satellite measurements to show how the world is changing.” What an understatement. At the May League Day, our two dynamic climate scientists, Dr. Ian Fenty and Prof. Jay Famiglietti, stepped onto that lonely floating ice raft with the bear as it called out “May Day! M’aider!”* to us Californians, to our country, to the entire world.

In Dr. Fenty’s PowerPoint graphs of how and where sea levels are rising, the first facts to hit us were “500,000 people along coasts will be a new class of refugees needing resettling.” One million jobs and $100 billion in property will be threatened. Fenty gave an example of what’s to come: the first ever “refugee resettlement” project, from the Isle de Jean Charles deep in the bayous of Louisiana, has taken place with federal assistance, because the Native American population there has lost 98 percent of its land into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea levels on earth are amazingly complicated, Fenty pointed out, and thousands of oceanographers are at work understanding how they change yearly. With the recent invention of the GRACE satellites, which circle the earth like “scales in the sky” measuring ocean height by gravity, scientists are gaining a more alarming picture of how fast ice is melting and seas are rising, especially in Greenland and the Antarctic. Another slide showed melting of polar ice sheets as a major contributor to sea-level change along with mountain glaciers melting and ocean thermal expansion, causing vertical swell. Fenty said some scientists believe our oceans could rise well over four feet by the year 2100.

Professor Famiglietti picked up where Dr. Fenty left off. Focusing on California, Famiglietti pointed out the glaring fact that we do not have enough water to do what we are doing. The drought is bad and it is not over, he reminded us. El Nino did not dig us out of our predicament.

The major problem, the professor pointed out, is that California is draining its aquifers to feed the entire country and some of the world as well. Of the 10 to 12 million total acre feet of water a year used by all Californians for all uses, state agriculture soaks up 80 percent. But California now loses 16 million acre feet of water a year. Thousands of wells are going dry. Our lakes and rivers shrivel. Simple math shows we are falling farther and farther behind. A graph on one slide had a line jiggling somewhat reassuringly up during wet winter seasons and down during dry summer seasons until about 2012. At that point, the line lost its upward thrusts and plunged down to 2016. Since ground water is not as visible as rain, snow, rivers, and lakes, Famiglietti feels we have ignored its significance to our peril. Our aquifers are not refillable. At this point Famiglietti showed slides of the entire globe and its thirty-seven major aquifers, half of which are shrinking as well, especially through highly populated southeast Asian regions.

What can be done? Famiglietti’s answers posed drastic solutions. California must stop draining its aquifers to feed the rest of the nation. Agriculture will have to go elsewhere. Or, perhaps Californians will have to go elsewhere. The present water crisis will dictate massive change. One fortunate fact: half the world gains water while the other half loses it. Famiglietti believes that we may see huge water pipelines transporting the precious liquid. He believes that it is only fair: California sends you food, you send us water.

The local LWV is extremely fortunate to have wonderful speakers from JPL willing to share their knowledge with us time and time again. Be sure to sign up for this discussion to show our awareness of and concern for the urgency of world environmental challenges.

*May Day, from the French m’aider, (help me) is used by ships and planes only in life-threatening emergencies. Making a fake May Day call can land one in jail for six years or cost $250,000 in fines. The polar bear was justified.