In 2002, NASA launched a mission called Grace, which sent two satellites into orbit to measure Earth’s gravitational field. As NASA scientists looked at the data sent back from the mission, they were finding strange aberrations in the data. The cause turned out to be groundwater, the water under Earth’s surface that eventually bubbles up as fresh, drinkable water. What was disturbing was that the groundwater was disappearing.
In this video, you can see that data used to show the yearly water cycle of the planet for the last 10 years (ending in 2008). During the winter and spring, you’ll see white areas flare up, which means an abundance of groundwater. As the weather turns warmer, the water dissipates, only to be replenished the next spring.
The red areas, however, tell a slightly different story. These are where fundamental changes have happened to the groundwater levels. In these places, water didn’t return to its normal winter levels. You can also track some of these in the charts on the bottom of the video. For instance, Las Vegas has actually reclaimed some of its groundwater, while the North China Plain and Northern India’s levels continue to plummet.
It pays to watch a few times to catch all the details, but the general message is pretty simple: We need water to survive and we’re using up all the easily accessible parts of it.
The video itself is being shown on World Water Day on the Thompson Reuters video screen in Times Square. It’s part of Heads Up!, a competition about visualizing groundwater, which will continue to produce visualizations about water throughout the year. This one was designed by Richard Vijgen. And if you really like the idea of seeing the animation small in Times Square, not large on your computer, here is what it looked like: