The severe drought gripping the western United States is changing the landscape well beyond localized effects of water restrictions and browning lawns. Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists at UC San Diego discovered that water loss is causing the entire western U.S. to rise up like an uncoiled spring. The water shortage is producing an “uplift” effect of more than half an inch in California’s mountains and on average .15 of an inch across the West. Using ground positioning data, researchers tracked this uplift caused by recent massive water loss, estimated at sixty-three trillion gallons. The study, which was supported by the US Geological Survey, demonstrates a new way to track water resources over a very large landscape—from the Sierra Nevada mountains and critical California snowpack, to changes in fresh water stocks in other regions around the world.
As Scripps Oceanography researchers pored over the GPS data, a consistent pattern emerged over the 2003–14 timeframe: all of the stations moved upwards in the most recent years, coinciding with the timing of the current drought. The data can only be explained by rapid uplift of the tectonic plate upon which the western U.S. rests, according to the scientific team. The uplift has virtually no effect on the San Andreas Fault and does not increase the risk of earthquakes.