Letter | Published:

Fate of water pumped from underground and contributions to sea-level rise

Nature Climate Change volume 6, pages 777780 (2016) | Download Citation


The contributions from terrestrial water sources to sea-level rise, other than ice caps and glaciers, are highly uncertain and heavily debated1,2,3,4,5. Recent assessments indicate that groundwater depletion (GWD) may become the most important positive terrestrial contribution6,7,8,9,10 over the next 50 years, probably equal in magnitude to the current contributions from glaciers and ice caps6. However, the existing estimates assume that nearly 100% of groundwater extracted eventually ends up in the oceans. Owing to limited knowledge of the pathways and mechanisms governing the ultimate fate of pumped groundwater, the relative fraction of global GWD that contributes to sea-level rise remains unknown. Here, using a coupled climate–hydrological model11,12 simulation, we show that only 80% of GWD ends up in the ocean. An increase in runoff to the ocean accounts for roughly two-thirds, whereas the remainder results from the enhanced net flux of precipitation minus evaporation over the ocean, due to increased atmospheric vapour transport from the land to the ocean. The contribution of GWD to global sea-level rise amounted to 0.02 (±0.004) mm yr1 in 1900 and increased to 0.27 (±0.04) mm yr1 in 2000. This indicates that existing studies have substantially overestimated the contribution of GWD to global sea-level rise by a cumulative amount of at least 10 mm during the twentieth century and early twenty-first century. With other terrestrial water contributions included, we estimate the net terrestrial water contribution during the period 1993–2010 to be +0.12 (±0.04) mm yr1, suggesting that the net terrestrial water contribution reported in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report report is probably overestimated by a factor of three.

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Y.W. is supported by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Oversea Research Fellowship (grant no. JSPS-2014-878). M.-H.L. is supported by grants MOST-104-2923-M-002-002-MY4 and MOST-100-2119-M-001-029-MY5 to National Taiwan University. J.T.R. and J.S.F. are supported by NASA grants from the GRACE Science Team, the Sea Level Program and by Water Initiative at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. M.-H.L., J.T.R. and J.S.F. are also supported by a grant from the University of California Office of the President, Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives.

Author information


  1. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Yoshihide Wada
  2. Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Yoshihide Wada
  3. Department of Physical Geography, Utrecht University, 3584 CS Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Yoshihide Wada
  4. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria

    • Yoshihide Wada
  5. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, National Taiwan University, Taipei 10617, Taiwan

    • Min-Hui Lo
    •  & Ren-Jie Wu
  6. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117576, Singapore

    • Pat J.-F. Yeh
  7. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • John T. Reager
    •  & James S. Famiglietti
  8. Department of Earth System Science, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • James S. Famiglietti
  9. National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA

    • Yu-Heng Tseng


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Y.W., M.-H.L. and P.J.-F.Y. performed background research and designed the study with contributions from the other co-authors. M.-H.L., Y.-H.T., R.-J.W. and Y.W. prepared the data and conducted the model simulation. Y.W., M.-H.L. and P.J.-F.Y. prepared the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Yoshihide Wada or Min-Hui Lo.

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