Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
The massive loss of groundwater has caused a tectonic uplift of more than half an inch in some areas.
File under apocalyptic imagery: The western United States' worst drought in possibly 500 years is causing the ground to rise up like an uncoiling spring.
A new report in Science from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego found that the massive loss of groundwater associated with the drought has caused a tectonic "uplift" of more than half an inch in California's mountains, with an average 0.15 of an inch across the west.
Sifting through ground-positioning data from GPS stations throughout the region, the researchers had discovered those stations had been moving upwards in recent years, coinciding with the current drought. Duncan Agnew, a geophysicist specializing in earthquakes and an author of the study, told Scripps that the data can only be explained by a rapid uplift of the tectonic plate underlying the western U.S. (which, he stressed, has virtually no effect on the San Andreas fault and does not increase risk of earthquakes).
The findings estimate a total water deficit of nearly 63 trillion gallons of water. To visualize that number, imagine a four-inch layer of water spread out over the entire western U.S. Now, evaporate that, and you've got the effect of this literally earth-shattering drought.