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A new study reveals widespread decline in global lake water storage

A satellite image of a large black-colored lake in an oblong oval shape with gray land mass surrounding it.
NASA/USGS
An image of the Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, seen here taken from space in 2020. A recent study from the journal Science found that more than 50% of the world’s largest freshwater lakes are losing water.

More than 50% of the world’s largest freshwater lakes are losing water.

That’s according to a study published last month in the journal Science. The main reasons for the water loss were a warming climate and unsustainable human consumption, according to the study. 

Fangfang Yao, a visiting fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), was one of the lead authors who worked with nine other scientists from around the world on the study.

"The lakes are important because they provide many socioeconomic functions to our society," said Yao. "They support the water supply and the hydro power generation for large reservoirs. So all those things combined, we found that humans depend on lakes for survival."

Yao worked with colleagues from the University of Colorado Boulder and Kansas State University as well as from universities in France and Saudi Arabia to measure changes in water levels in nearly 2,000 of the world’s biggest lakes and reservoirs. They used 250,000 lake-area snapshots captured by satellites between 1992 to 2020 to survey the lakes.

Yao said the results of the survey were concerning.

"The increasing impact of climate change contributed to the lakes losing water, at least over the past 20 years," Yao said.

Despite the decline in water, Yao said the news is not all bad. The study added that while the majority of global lakes are shrinking, 24% saw increases in water storage, including some lakes in the inner Tibetan Plateau and the Northern Great Plains of North America.

But Yao and his team added that, in general, lakes need to be better managed in terms of water conservation.

"Maintaining a healthy level is really the key here, along with the integration of management resources," Yao said.

The full study from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder can be viewed here.

I serve as the afternoon host for KUNC’s All Things Considered. My job is to keep our listeners across Northern Colorado informed on the day’s top stories from around the communities we serve. On occasion, I switch roles and hit the streets of northern Colorado digging up human interest stories or covering a major event that’s taking place in our listening area.
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