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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

Visualizing the Depth of the Great Lakes

The five Great Lakes account for 21% of the world’s total freshwater. This bathymetric visualization dives into just how deep they are.

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Visualized: The Depth of The Great Lakes

Click here to view the interactive version of the visualization on Tableau.

As the seasons change, it’s natural to want to enjoy the outdoors to the fullest. The Great Lakes, a distinct geographical region sandwiched between the U.S. and Canada, provides immense opportunity for millions of tourists to do just that every year.

But did you know that altogether the Great Lakes contain 21% of the world’s surface freshwater by volume—or 84% of the surface freshwater in North America?

This bathymetric visualization, created by Alex Varlamov, helps put the sheer size and depth of all five of the Great Lakes into perspective.

What is Bathymetry?

Bathymetry is the study of the underwater depth of ocean or lake floors, a geographical science that falls under the wider umbrella of hydrography.

In essence, it is the underwater equivalent of topography. Contour lines help to represent and study the physical features of bodies of water, from oceans to lakes.

Most bathymetric studies are conducted via sonar systems, transmitting pulses that ‘ping’ off the ocean and lake floor, uncovering what lies below.

The Depth of the Great Lakes, Compared

High on the list of the world’s largest lakes, the five Great Lakes altogether account for over 244,700 km² (94,250 mi²) in total surface area. That’s bigger than the entire United Kingdom.

Lake Superior emerges, well, superior in terms of total surface area, water volume, and both average and maximum depth.

 Surface areaWater volumeAverage depthMaximum depth
Lake Ontario19,000 km²
(7,340 mi²)
1,640 km³
(393 mi³)
86 m
(283 ft)
245 m
(804 ft)
Lake Erie25,700 km²
(9,910 mi²)
480 km³
(116 mi³)
19 m
(62 ft)
64 m
(210 ft)
Lake Michigan58,000 km²
(22,300 mi²)
4,900 km³
(1,180 mi³)
85 m
(279 ft)
282 m
(925 ft)
Lake Huron60,000 km²
(23,000 mi²)
3,500 km³
(850 mi³)
59 m
(195 ft)
228 m
(748 ft)
Lake Superior82,000 km²
(31,700 mi²)
12,000 km³
(2,900 mi³)
147 m
(483 ft)
406 m
(1,333 ft)

Lake Erie is by far the shallowest of the lakes, with an average depth of just 19 meters (62 ft). That means on average, Lake Superior is about eight times deeper.

With that in mind, one drawback of the visualization is that it doesn’t provide an accurate view of how deep these lakes are in relation to one another.

For that, check out this additional visualization also created by Alex Varlamov, which is scaled to the same 20 meter step—in this view, Lake Erie practically disappears.

More than Meets the Eye

The Great Lakes are not only notable for their form, but also their function—they’re a crucial waterway contributing to the economy of the area, supporting over 50 million jobs and contributing $6 trillion to gross domestic product (GDP).

Together, the five Great Lakes feed into the Atlantic Ocean—and when we expand the scope to compare these lakes to vast oceans, trenches, and drill holes, the depth of the Great Lakes barely scratches the surface.

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Green

Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are 510 million km² of area on the Earth, but less than 30% of this is land. Here’s the share countries make up of the Earth’s surface.

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countries by share of earth's surface

Visualizing Countries by Share of Earth’s Surface

There are over 510 million square kilometers of area on the surface of Earth, but less than 30% of this is covered by land. The rest is water, in the form of vast oceans.

Today’s visualization uses data primarily from the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) to rank the world’s countries by their share of Earth’s surface.

Breakdown of Countries Share of Earth’s Surface

The largest countries by surface area are Russia (3.35%), Canada (1.96%), and China (1.88%).

Together they occupy roughly 7.2% of Earth’s surface. Russia is so big that even if we divided the country between its Asian and European sections, those new regions would still be the largest in their respective continents.

Country / DependencyTotal in km² (mi²)Percentage of Earth's Surface
Russia17,098,246 (6,601,670)3.352%
Antarctica14,000,000 (5,400,000)2.745%
Canada9,984,670 (3,855,100)1.958%
China9,596,961 (3,705,407)1.881%
United States9,525,067 (3,677,649)1.867%
Brazil8,515,767 (3,287,956)1.670%
Australia7,692,024 (2,969,907)1.508%
India3,287,263 (1,269,219)0.644%
Argentina2,780,400 (1,073,500)0.545%
Kazakhstan2,724,900 (1,052,100)0.534%
Algeria2,381,741 (919,595)0.467%
D.R. Congo2,344,858 (905,355)0.460%
Greenland (Denmark)2,166,086 (836,330)0.425%
Saudi Arabia2,149,690 (830,000)0.421%
Mexico1,964,375 (758,449)0.385%
Indonesia1,910,931 (737,815)0.375%
Sudan1,861,484 (718,723)0.365%
Libya1,759,540 (679,360)0.345%
Iran1,648,195 (636,372)0.323%
Mongolia1,564,110 (603,910)0.307%
Peru1,285,216 (496,225)0.252%
Chad1,284,000 (496,000)0.252%
Niger1,267,000 (489,000)0.248%
Angola1,246,700 (481,400)0.244%
Mali1,240,192 (478,841)0.243%
South Africa1,221,037 (471,445)0.239%
Colombia1,141,748 (440,831)0.224%
Ethiopia1,104,300 (426,400)0.216%
Bolivia1,098,581 (424,164)0.215%
Mauritania1,030,700 (398,000)0.202%
Egypt1,002,450 (387,050)0.197%
Tanzania945,087 (364,900)0.185%
Nigeria923,768 (356,669)0.181%
Venezuela916,445 (353,841)0.180%
Pakistan907,843 (350,520)0.178%
Namibia825,615 (318,772)0.162%
Mozambique801,590 (309,500)0.157%
Turkey783,562 (302,535)0.154%
Chile756,102 (291,933)0.148%
Zambia752,612 (290,585)0.148%
Myanmar676,578 (261,228)0.133%
Afghanistan652,230 (251,830)0.128%
South Sudan644,329 (248,777)0.126%
Somalia637,657 (246,201)0.125%
Central African Republic622,984 (240,535)0.122%
Ukraine603,500 (233,000)0.118%
Madagascar587,041 (226,658)0.115%
Botswana581,730 (224,610)0.114%
Kenya580,367 (224,081)0.114%
France543,940 (210,020)0.107%
Yemen527,968 (203,850)0.104%
Thailand513,120 (198,120)0.101%
Spain505,992 (195,365)0.099%
Turkmenistan488,100 (188,500)0.096%
Cameroon475,442 (183,569)0.093%
Papua New Guinea462,840 (178,700)0.091%
Sweden450,295 (173,860)0.088%
Uzbekistan447,400 (172,700)0.088%
Morocco446,550 (172,410)0.088%
Iraq438,317 (169,235)0.086%
Paraguay406,752 (157,048)0.080%
Zimbabwe390,757 (150,872)0.077%
Norway385,207 (148,729)0.076%
Japan377,976 (145,937)0.074%
Germany357,114 (137,882)0.070%
Republic of the Congo342,000 (132,000)0.067%
Finland338,424 (130,666)0.066%
Vietnam331,212 (127,882)0.065%
Malaysia330,803 (127,724)0.065%
Ivory Coast322,463 (124,504)0.063%
Poland312,696 (120,733)0.061%
Oman309,500 (119,500)0.061%
Italy301,339 (116,348)0.059%
Philippines300,000 (120,000)0.059%
Ecuador276,841 (106,889)0.054%
Burkina Faso274,222 (105,878)0.054%
New Zealand270,467 (104,428)0.053%
Gabon267,668 (103,347)0.052%
Guinea245,857 (94,926)0.048%
United Kingdom242,495 (93,628)0.048%
Uganda241,550 (93,260)0.047%
Ghana238,533 (92,098)0.047%
Romania238,397 (92,046)0.047%
Laos236,800 (91,400)0.046%
Guyana214,969 (83,000)0.042%
Belarus207,600 (80,200)0.041%
Kyrgyzstan199,951 (77,202)0.039%
Senegal196,722 (75,955)0.039%
Syria185,180 (71,500)0.036%
Cambodia181,035 (69,898)0.035%
Uruguay176,215 (68,037)0.035%
Somaliland176,120 (68,000)0.035%
Suriname163,820 (63,250)0.032%
Tunisia163,610 (63,170)0.032%
Bangladesh148,460 (57,320)0.029%
Nepal147,181 (56,827)0.029%
Tajikistan143,100 (55,300)0.028%
Greece131,957 (50,949)0.026%
Nicaragua130,373 (50,337)0.026%
North Korea120,540 (46,540)0.024%
Malawi118,484 (45,747)0.023%
Eritrea117,600 (45,400)0.023%
Benin114,763 (44,310)0.022%
Honduras112,492 (43,433)0.022%
Liberia111,369 (43,000)0.022%
Bulgaria111,002 (42,858)0.022%
Cuba109,884 (42,426)0.022%
Guatemala108,889 (42,042)0.021%
Iceland103,000 (40,000)0.020%
South Korea100,210 (38,690)0.020%
Hungary93,028 (35,918)0.018%
Portugal92,226 (35,609)0.018%
Jordan89,342 (34,495)0.018%
Serbia88,361 (34,116)0.017%
Azerbaijan86,600 (33,400)0.017%
Austria83,871 (32,383)0.016%
United Arab Emirates83,600 (32,300)0.016%
Czech Republic78,865 (30,450)0.015%
Panama75,417 (29,119)0.015%
Sierra Leone71,740 (27,700)0.014%
Ireland70,273 (27,133)0.014%
Georgia69,700 (26,900)0.014%
Sri Lanka65,610 (25,330)0.013%
Lithuania65,300 (25,200)0.013%
Latvia64,559 (24,926)0.013%
Togo56,785 (21,925)0.011%
Croatia56,594 (21,851)0.011%
Bosnia and Herzegovina51,209 (19,772)0.010%
Costa Rica51,100 (19,700)0.010%
Slovakia49,037 (18,933)0.010%
Dominican Republic48,671 (18,792)0.010%
Estonia45,227 (17,462)0.009%
Denmark43,094 (16,639)0.008%
Netherlands41,850 (16,160)0.008%
Switzerland41,284 (15,940)0.008%
Bhutan38,394 (14,824)0.008%
Taiwan36,193 (13,974)0.007%
Guinea-Bissau36,125 (13,948)0.007%
Moldova33,846 (13,068)0.007%
Belgium30,528 (11,787)0.006%
Lesotho30,355 (11,720)0.006%
Armenia29,743 (11,484)0.006%
Solomon Islands28,896 (11,157)0.006%
Albania28,748 (11,100)0.006%
Equatorial Guinea28,051 (10,831)0.005%
Burundi27,834 (10,747)0.005%
Haiti27,750 (10,710)0.005%
Rwanda26,338 (10,169)0.005%
North Macedonia25,713 (9,928)0.005%
Djibouti23,200 (9,000)0.005%
Belize22,966 (8,867)0.005%
El Salvador21,041 (8,124)0.004%
Israel20,770 (8,020)0.004%
Slovenia20,273 (7,827)0.004%
Fiji18,272 (7,055)0.004%
Kuwait17,818 (6,880)0.003%
Eswatini17,364 (6,704)0.003%
East Timor14,919 (5,760)0.003%
The Bahamas13,943 (5,383)0.003%
Montenegro13,812 (5,333)0.003%
Vanuatu12,189 (4,706)0.002%
Qatar11,586 (4,473)0.002%
The Gambia11,295 (4,361)0.002%
Jamaica10,991 (4,244)0.002%
Kosovo10,887 (4,203)0.002%
Lebanon10,452 (4,036)0.002%
Cyprus9,251 (3,572)0.002%
State of Palestine6,020 (2,320)0.001%
Brunei5,765 (2,226)0.001%
Trinidad and Tobago5,130 (1,980)0.001%
Cape Verde4,033 (1,557)0.001%
Samoa2,842 (1,097)0.001%
Luxembourg2,586 (998)0.001%
Mauritius2,040 (790)0.000%
Comoros1,862 (719)0.000%
São Tomé and Príncipe964 (372)0.000%
Kiribati811 (313)0.000%
Bahrain778 (300)0.000%
Dominica751 (290)0.000%
Tonga747 (288)0.000%
Singapore728 (281)0.000%
Federated States of Micronesia702 (271)0.000%
Saint Lucia616 (238)0.000%
Andorra468 (181)0.000%
Palau459 (177)0.000%
Seychelles452 (175)0.000%
Antigua and Barbuda442 (171)0.000%
Barbados430 (170)0.000%
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines389 (150)0.000%
Grenada344 (133)0.000%
Malta316 (122)0.000%
Maldives300 (120)0.000%
Saint Kitts and Nevis261 (101)0.000%
Marshall Islands181 (70)0.000%
Liechtenstein160 (62)0.000%
San Marino61 (24)0.000%
Tuvalu26 (10)0.000%
Nauru21 (8.1)0.000%
Monaco2.02 (0.78)0.000%
Vatican City0.49 (0.19)0.000%

Antarctica, although not a country, covers the second largest amount of land overall at 2.75%. Meanwhile, the other nations that surpass the 1% mark for surface area include the United States (1.87%), Brazil (1.67%), and Australia (1.51%).

The remaining 195 countries and regions below 1%, combined, account for the other half of Earth’s land surface. Among the world’s smallest countries are the island nations of the Caribbean and the South Pacific Ocean. However, the tiniest of the tiny are Vatican City and Monaco, which combine for a total area of just 2.51 km².

The remaining 70% of Earth’s surface is water: 27% territorial waters and 43% international waters or areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

In the past, nations adhered to the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine, a 17th century principle that limited jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow area along a nation’s coastline. The rest of the seas did not belong to any nation and were free for countries to travel and exploit.

This situation lasted into the 20th century, but by mid-century there was an effort to extend national claims as competition for offshore resources became increasingly fierce and ocean pollution became an issue.

In 1982, the United Nations adopted the Law of the Sea Convention which extended international law over the extra-territorial waters. The convention established freedom-of-navigation rights and set territorial sea boundaries 12 miles (19 km) offshore with exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles (322 km) offshore, extending a country’s influence over maritime resources.

Does Size Matter?

The size of countries is the outcome of politics, economics, history, and geography. Put simply, borders can change over time.

In 1946, there were 76 independent countries in the world, and today there are 195. There are forces that push together or pull apart landscapes over time. While physical geography plays a role in the identity of nations, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former ruler of UAE, a tiny Gulf nation, put it best:

“A country is not measured by the size of its area on the map. A country is truly measured by its heritage and culture.”

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