Global Warming and Our Shrinking Fresh Water Supply

Reader Contribution by Richard Hilderman and Ph.D.

Aquifers, lakes and river water levels are in sharp decline, people are drilling deeper wells and there is an increase in the number of buildings that have cracked basements and foundations. How is all of this related to global warming?

Only 2.5 percent of the planet’s water is fresh water and two third of this fresh water is tied up in glaciers, ice caps and permafrost. Most of the remaining fresh water is in aquifers. All this amounts to less than three tenths of one percent of the total liquid fresh water being on the surface. Fresh water is in short supply and global warming is making it even scarcer.

Mountain glaciers are rapidly disappearing, straining supplies of glacial water needed for agriculture, drinking water, sanitation and hydropower generation. The melt waters from the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau glaciers provide fresh water for the people of India, China and most of Southeast Asia. A major glacier feeding the Yangtze River in China has retreated more than a half mile in just over a decade. In the northwestern United States much of the fresh water comes from the rapidly disappearing glaciers of Mt. Rainer, the Cascade Range and Glacier National Park. In 1850 Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers. Today there are only 25!  Some experts estimate that these 25 glaciers will be gone within 8 years.

Another source of fresh water is mountain snow. During winter months snow accumulates in the mountains and melts over the summer generating fresh water for human usage. Due to global warming the snow is not only melting faster but also earlier. By late summer river water levels decline at a time when agriculture needs water the most.

This year – which likely will be the hottest year ever recorded – has produced heat waves and droughts. The drought we are experiencing this year in the United States is the worst drought in the last 50 years!  The elevated temperature pulls moisture out of the ground. The lack of moisture in the ground causes the soil to crack open and pull away from concrete bases of homes. This shifting of the ground leads to cracked basements and foundations. The drought this year has created home damage in 40 states with the central part of the country getting the worst of it. It is estimated the cost to repair the damage could exceed one billion dollars!

As both the global temperature and human population continues to rise our increasing demand for water will make the fresh water supply on our planet even scarcer. To conserve our dwindling supply of fresh water we must ask ourselves is it necessary to water our lawns, wash our cars at automated car washes instead of hand washing, dishwashers instead of hand washing the dishes, etc. Would it also help our fresh water supply if we converted to a carbon neutral energy economy?