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NASA Satellites Show Disturbing Trends in Water Supply

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NASA launched a satellite mission in 2002 that has been transmitting data to us over a decade now. The mission is called GRACE, which stands for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, and it measures the amount of water held underground in aquifers.

Aquifers are underground layers of water-bearing permeable rock from which groundwater can be extracted with water wells. About 30% of all of the world’s freshwater resources are located in aquifers.

Data from NASA’s program was revealed in a recent study, which concluded that 21 of the 37 largest aquifers (57%) are running out too fast to be replenished. Even more concerning: an additional 13 are declining at a rate that puts them in a category NASA calls the “most troubled”.

This is putting us closer to peak water territory.

In the below map, red shades show negative changes in the water supply in the world’s biggest aquifers.

Trends in Groundwater Storage, 2003-2013

NASA Satellite Photos Showing Aquifer Depletion

The biggest water sources exert strong gravitational pulls on the satellites, and NASA can use this data to spot trends in water supply while monitoring the world’s largest sources of groundwater.

The below map shows the type of stress exhibited on each water source. Overstressed aquifers do not experience any replenishment, while variable stress means that an aquifer is in decline but still experiences some sort of replenishment. Lastly, human-dominated stress means that aquifer levels will not increase unless humans help recharge the wells through irrigation or other methods.

Changes in Storage vs. Aquifer Stress

NASA Satellite Photos Showing Aquifer Depletion

Keep in mind that these are all of the world’s best aquifers, and that changes in smaller groundwater sources are not well reflected in the study. In the United States, it is expected that 40 of 50 states have at least one region that will see some kind of a water shortage in the next 10 years.

Domestic water use in the United States

California, which is struck by a historical drought, currently relies on 60% of its water from aquifers. For more information on the water challenges faced in the United States, don’t forget to take a look at America’s Water Crisis.

Source: Circle of Blue, Business Insider

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Misc

Map: Visualizing 40 Years of Nautical Piracy

Ever since humans first sailed the high seas, piracy has been a dangerous risk. See instances of modern piracy on this detailed map.

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Map: Visualizing 40 Years of Nautical Piracy

View the full-size version of the infographic by clicking here

For millennia, voyaging on the open seas has been a dangerous and risky endeavor.

Between the powerful forces of Mother Nature and self-made obstacles stemming from human error, there is no shortage of possible calamities for even the bravest of sailors.

But for most of human history, perhaps the biggest fear that sailors grappled with was that of piracy. A run in with such marauders could lead to the theft of valuable cargo or even possible death, and it’s a threat that carries on even through modern times.

Hotbeds of Modern Piracy

Today’s map comes from Adventures in Mapping and it aggregates instances of piracy over the last 40 years based on the database from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

It should be noted that all individual events can be seen on this interactive map, which is what we will use to look at current hotbeds of piracy in more depth below.

1. The Strait of Malacca

The Strait of Malacca

The Strait of Malacca is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, and also one of the most notorious.

A key chokepoint that sits between Malaysia and Indonesia, the Strait of Malacca is as narrow as 25 miles wide while also seeing a quarter of the world’s traded goods shipped through it every year. As a result, the strait and surrounding area are a frequent target for modern piracy.

Example account: (September 2002)
“The 1,699-ton Malaysian-flag tanker (NAUTICA KLUANG) was hijacked 28 Sep at 0300 local time while underway off Indonesia in the vicinity of Pulau Iyu Kecil at the southern tip of the Strait of Malacca. The pirates, armed with guns and machetes, tied up the crew and locked them in cabins. When the crew freed themselves at 0900, 29 Sep, the thieves had transferred the ship’s cargo of 3,000 tons of diesel oil, damaged communications equipment, and renamed it (CAKLU). “

2. The Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa

When many people think of modern piracy, they think of the coast of Somalia. While those waters are often avoided, the nearby areas can be just as problematic.

In particular, the Bab el Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, is a target for modern piracy. Similarly, the waters just off of Yemen are quite treacherous as well.

Example account: (January 1991)
“Somali pirates attached MV Naviluck off Somalia, killing three Filipino crewmen and setting fire to the vessel. Three boatloads of armed Somali pirates boarded the vessel on 12 Jan 91 took the crew ashore and killed three of them. The captain said the vessel was attacked off Xaafuun while on her way from Mombasa to Jeddah. He declined to specify the cargo. The surviving crew were made to jump overboard, and were later rescued by M Stern TRLR Dubai Dolphin.”

3. The Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea

While we hear the most about Somalian pirates, the Gulf of Guinea that sits south of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana in West Africa is also a well-known hotbed.

Tanker theft of petroleum products being shipped to and from Nigerian refineries is rampant, creating an ongoing concern for companies operating in the region.

Example account: (June 2013)
“On 13 June, the Singapore-flagged underway offshore supply vessel MDPL CONTINENTAL ONE was boarded and personnel kidnapped at 04-02N 008-02E, approximately 7 nm southwest of the OFON Oil Field. Two fiberglass speedboats, each with 2 outboards engines, each carrying 14 gunmen in wearing casual t-shirts and no masks, launched an attack. The pirates were armed with AK47’s. After stealing personal items and belongings, four expat crew were kidnapped (Polish Chief Engineer) and three Indians (Captain, Chief Officer, and Bosun).”

4. The Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean

The Caribbean has a longstanding history with piracy – and while things have died down considerably since the peak, there are still isolated incidents that occur, especially with yachts.

Most incidents happen off the coast of Venezuela, or in and around the islands on the eastern side of the sea, such as Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, and Grenada.

Example account: (March 2016)
“On 4 March, near position 13-16N 061-16W, several gunmen boarded a yacht anchored at Wallilabou in southwestern St. Vincent. During the course of the boarding, a German citizen aboard the yacht was killed and another person was injured. Authorities are investigating the incident.”

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Environment

The World’s 25 Largest Lakes, Side by Side

This unique map graphic uses the Great Lakes region as a point of comparison for the top 25 largest lakes in the world.

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The World’s 25 Largest Lakes, Side by Side

In many parts of the world, you don’t have to look very far to find a lake.

According to satellite data, there are roughly 100 million lakes larger than one hectare (2.47 acres) to be found globally. The largest lakes, which rival the size of entire nations, are more of a rarity.

One might expect the world’s largest lakes to be very alike, but from depth to saline content, their properties can be quite different. As well, the ranking of the world’s largest lakes is far from static, as human activity can turn a massive body of water into a desert within a single generation.

Today’s graphic – created using the fantastic online tool, Slap It On A Map! – uses the Great Lakes region as a point of comparison for the largest 25 lakes, by area. This is particularly useful in comparing the scale of lakes that are located in disparate parts of the globe.

The Greatest Lakes

The largest lake in the world by a long shot is the Caspian Sea – a name that hints at a past when it was contiguous with the ocean around 11 million years ago. This massive saline lake, which is nearly the same size as Japan, borders five countries: Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. An estimated 48 billion barrels of oil lay beneath the surface of the basin.

The five Great Lakes, which run along the Canada–U.S. border, form one of the largest collections of fresh water on Earth. This interconnected series of lakes represents around 20% of the world’s fresh water and the region supports over 100 million people, roughly equal to one-third of the Canada–U.S. population.

Amazingly, a single lake holds as much fresh water as all the Great Lakes combined – Lake Baikal. This rift lake in Siberia has a maximum depth of 5,371ft (1,637m). For comparison, the largest of the Great Lakes (Lake Superior) is only 25% as deep, with a maximum depth of 1,333ft (406m). Lake Baikal is unique in a number of other ways too. It is the world’s oldest, coldest lake, and around 80% of its animal species are endemic (not found anywhere else).

Here’s a full run-down of the top 25 lakes by area:

RankLake NameSurface AreaTypeCountries on shoreline
1Caspian Sea143,000 sq mi
(371,000km²)
Saline🇰🇿 Kazakhstan
🇷🇺 Russia
🇹🇲 Turkmenistan
🇦🇿 Azerbaijan
🇮🇷 Iran
2Superior31,700 sq mi
(82,100km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
3Victoria26,590 sq mi
(68,870km²)
Freshwater🇺🇬 Uganda
🇰🇪 Kenya
🇹🇿 Tanzania
4Huron23,000 sq mi
(59,600km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
5Michigan22,000 sq mi
(58,000km²)
Freshwater🇺🇸 U.S.
6Tanganyika12,600 sq mi
(32,600km²)
Freshwater🇧🇮 Burundi
🇹🇿 Tanzania
🇿🇲 Zambia
🇨🇩 D.R.C.
7Baikal12,200 sq mi
(31,500km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
8Great Bear Lake12,000 sq mi
(31,000km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
9Malawi11,400 sq mi
(29,500km²)
Freshwater🇲🇼 Malawi
🇲🇿 Mozambique
🇹🇿 Tanzania
10Great Slave Lake10,000 sq mi
(27,000km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
11Erie9,900 sq mi
(25,700km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
12Winnipeg9,465 sq mi
(24,514km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
13Ontario7,320 sq mi
(18,960km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
14Ladoga7,000 sq mi
(18,130km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
15Balkhash6,300 sq mi
(16,400km²)
Saline🇰🇿 Kazakhstan
16Vostok4,800 sq mi
(12,500km²)
Freshwater🇦🇶 Antarctica
17Onega3,700 sq mi
(9,700km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
18Titicaca3,232 sq mi
(8,372km²)
Freshwater🇧🇴 Bolivia
🇵🇪 Peru
19Nicaragua3,191 sq mi
(8,264km²)
Freshwater🇳🇮 Nicaragua
20Athabasca3,030 sq mi
(7,850km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
21Taymyr2,700 sq mi
(6,990km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
22Turkana2,473 sq mi
(6,405km²)
Saline🇰🇪 Kenya
🇪🇹 Ethiopia
23Reindeer Lake2,440 sq mi
(6,330km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
24Issyk-Kul2,400 sq mi
(6,200km²)
Saline🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan
25Urmia2,317 sq mi
(6,001km²)
Saline🇮🇷 Iran

Shrinking out of the rankings

Not far from the world’s largest lake, straddling the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, lay the sand dunes of the Aralkum Desert. In the not so distant past, this harsh environment was actually the bed of one of the largest lakes in the world – the Aral Sea.

Aral Sea receding 1960 2020

For reasons both climatic and anthropogenic, the Aral Sea began receding in the 1960s. This dramatic change in surface area took the Aral Sea from the fourth largest lake on Earth to not even ranking in the top 50. Researchers note that the size of the lake has fluctuated a lot over history, but through the lens of modern history these recent changes happened rapidly, leaving local economies devastated and former shoreside towns landlocked.

Lake Chad, in Saharan Africa, and Lake Urmia, in Iran, both face similar challenges, shrinking dramatically in recent decades.

How we work to reverse damage and avoid ecosystem collapse in vulnerable lakes will have a big influence on how the top 25 list may look in future years.

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