Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Global patterns and dynamics of climate–groundwater interactions


Groundwater, the largest available store of global freshwater1, is relied upon by more than two billion people2. It is therefore important to quantify the spatiotemporal interactions between groundwater and climate. However, current understanding of the global-scale sensitivity of groundwater systems to climate change3,4—as well as the resulting variation in feedbacks from groundwater to the climate system5,6—is limited. Here, using groundwater model results in combination with hydrologic data sets, we examine the dynamic timescales of groundwater system responses to climate change. We show that nearly half of global groundwater fluxes could equilibrate with recharge variations due to climate change on human (~100 year) timescales, and that areas where water tables are most sensitive to changes in recharge are also those that have the longest groundwater response times. In particular, groundwater fluxes in arid regions are shown to be less responsive to climate variability than in humid regions. Adaptation strategies must therefore account for the hydraulic memory of groundwater systems, which can buffer climate change impacts on water resources in many regions, but may also lead to a long, but initially hidden, legacy of anthropogenic and climatic impacts on river flows and groundwater-dependent ecosystems.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Global distributions of water table ratios and groundwater response times with their conceptual interpretation as metrics of climate–groundwater interactions.
Fig. 2: Global distributions of the temporal and spatial sensitivity of the mode of climate–groundwater interactions.
Fig. 3: Global quantitative inter-relationships between climate and the temporal (GRT) and spatial (WTR) sensitivity of groundwater–climate interactions.

Data availability

Digital data sets of the main geomatic results for the water table ratio and groundwater response times maps are freely available for download as geotiffs from


  1. Taylor, R. G. et al. Ground water and climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 322–329 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Jasechko, S. et al. Global aquifers dominated by fossil groundwaters but wells vulnerable to modern contamination. Nat. Geosci. 10, 425–429 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Döll, P. Vulnerability to the impact of climate change on renewable groundwater resources: a global-scale assessment. Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 035006 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Green, T. R. et al. Beneath the surface of global change: impacts of climate change on groundwater. J. Hydrol. 405, 532–560 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Maxwell, R. M. & Kollet, S. J. Interdependence of groundwater dynamics and land-energy feedbacks under climate change. Nat. Geosci. 1, 665–669 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Maxwell, R. M. & Condon, L. E. Connections between groundwater flow and transpiration partitioning. Science 353, 377–380 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Cole, J. J. et al. Plumbing the global carbon cycle: integrating inland waters into the terrestrial carbon budget. Ecosystems 10, 172–185 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Cuthbert, M. O. et al. Modelling the role of groundwater hydro-refugia in East African hominin evolution and dispersal. Nat. Commun. 8, 15696 (2017).

  9. Fan, Y., Li, H. & Miguez-Macho, G. Global patterns of groundwater table depth. Science 339, 940–943 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Xu, X. & Liu, W. The global distribution of Earth’s critical zone and its controlling factors. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 3201–3208 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Gleeson, T., Marklund, L., Smith, L. & Manning, A. H. Classifying the water table at regional to continental scales. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L05401 (2011).

  12. Haitjema, H. M. & Mitchell‐Bruker, S. Are water tables a subdued replica of the topography? Groundwater 43, 781–786 (2005).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Koirala, S. et al. Global distribution of groundwater–vegetation spatial covariation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 4134–4142 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Schenk, H. J. & Jackson, R. B. Mapping the global distribution of deep roots in relation to climate and soil characteristics. Geoderma 126, 129–140 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Carr, E. & Simpson, M. Accurate and efficient calculation of response times for groundwater flow. J. Hydrol. 558, 470–481 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Döll, P., Kaspar, F. & Lehner, B. A global hydrological model for deriving water availability indicators: model tuning and validation. J. Hydrol. 270, 105–134 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Döll, P., Douville, H., Güntner, A., Schmied, H. M. & Wada, Y. Modelling freshwater resources at the global scale: challenges and prospects. Surv. Geophys. 37, 195–221 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Sood, A. & Smakhtin, V. Global hydrological models: a review. Hydrol. Sci. J. 60, 549–565 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Wood, E. F. et al. Hyperresolution global land surface modeling: Meeting a grand challenge for monitoring Earth’s terrestrial water. Water Resour. Res. 47, W05301 (2011).

  20. Koirala, S., Yeh, P. J. F., Hirabayashi, Y., Kanae, S. & Oki, T. Global‐scale land surface hydrologic modeling with the representation of water table dynamics. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 119, 75–89 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Milly, P. C. et al. An enhanced model of land water and energy for global hydrologic and earth-system studies. J. Hydrometeorol. 15, 1739–1761 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Schaller, M. F. & Fan, Y. River basins as groundwater exporters and importers: Implications for water cycle and climate modeling. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 114, D04103 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Ajami, H., McCabe, M. F., Evans, J. P. & Stisen, S. Assessing the impact of model spin‐up on surface water–groundwater interactions using an integrated hydrologic model. Water Resour. Res. 50, 2636–2656 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Schulz, S. et al. Improving large-scale groundwater models by considering fossil gradients. Adv. Water Resour. 103, 32–43 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Befus, K. M., Jasechko, S., Luijendijk, E., Gleeson, T. & Cardenas, M. B. The rapid yet uneven turnover of Earth’s groundwater. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 5511–5520 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Van Lanen, H. A. J. et al. Hydrological drought across the world: impact of climate and physical catchment structure. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 17, 1715–1732 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Bloomfield, J. P. & Marchant, B. P. Analysis of groundwater drought building on the standardised precipitation index approach. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 17, 4769–4787 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Damkjaer, S. & Taylor, R. The measurement of water scarcity: defining a meaningful indicator. Ambio 46, 513–531 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Alley, W. M. et al. Flow and storage in groundwater systems. Science 296, 1985–1990 (2002).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Döll, P. & Fiedler, K. Global-scale modeling of groundwater recharge. Hydro. Earth Syst. Sci. 12, 863–885 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Domenico, P. A. & Schwartz, F. W. Physical and Chemical Hydrogeology Vol. 506 (Wiley, New York, NY, 1998).

  32. Downing, R., Oakes, D., Wilkinson, W. & Wright, C. Regional development of groundwater resources in combination with surface water. J. Hydrol. 22, 155–177 (1974).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Erskine, A. & Papaioannou, A. The use of aquifer response rate in the assessment of groundwater resources. J. Hydrol. 202, 373–391 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Currell, M., Gleeson, T. & Dahlhaus, P. A new assessment framework for transience in hydrogeological systems. Groundwater 54, 4–14 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Townley, L. R. The response of aquifers to periodic forcing. Adv. Water Resour. 18, 125–146 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Lehner, B., Verdin, K. & Jarvis, A. New global hydrography derived from spaceborne elevation data. Eos 89, 93–94 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Lehner, B. & Grill, G. Global river hydrography and network routing: baseline data and new approaches to study the world’s large river systems. Hydrol. Process. 27, 2171–2186 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Alcamo, J. et al. Development and testing of the WaterGAP 2 global model of water use and availability. Hydrol. Sci. J. 48, 317–337 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Atlas of the World. 9th edn (National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 2010).

  40. Gleeson, T., Moosdorf, N., Hartmann, J. & Beek, L. A glimpse beneath earth’s surface: GLobal HYdrogeology MaPS (GLHYMPS) of permeability and porosity. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 3891–3898 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Condon, L. E. & Maxwell, R. M. Evaluating the relationship between topography and groundwater using outputs from a continental-scale intergrated hydrology model. Water Resour. Res. 51, 6602–6621 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Danielson, J. J. & Gesch, D. B. Global Multi-resolution Terrain Elevation Data 2010 (GMTED2010) Report no. 2331–1258 (US Geological Survey, 2011).

  43. Rushton, K. R. & Redshaw, S. C. Seepage and Groundwater Flow: Numerical Analysis by Analog and Digital Methods (Wiley, New York, NY, 1979).

  44. De Graaf, I. E. M. et al. A global-scale two-layer transient groundwater model: development and application to groundwater depletion. Adv. Water Resour. 102, 53–67 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Rousseau‐Gueutin, P. et al. Time to reach near‐steady state in large aquifers. Water Resour. Res. 49, 6893–6908 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Cuthbert, M. O. Straight thinking about groundwater recession. Water Resour. Res. 50, 2407–2424 (2014).

  47. Cuthbert, M. O. et al. Understanding and quantifying focused, indirect groundwater recharge from ephemeral streams using water table fluctuations. Water Resour. Res. 52, 827–840 (2016).

  48. Walker, G. R., Gilfedder, M., Dawes, W. R. & Rassam, D. W. Predicting aquifer response time for application in catchment modeling. Groundwater 53, 475–484 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. Seybold, H., Rothman, D. H. & Kirchner, J. W. Climate’s watermark in the geometry of stream networks. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 2272–2280 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Gleeson, T. & Manning, A. H. Regional groundwater flow in mountainous terrain: three‐dimensional simulations of topographic and hydrogeologic controls. Water Resour. Res. 44, W10403 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Gleeson, T. et al. Mapping permeability over the surface of the Earth. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L02401 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. De Graaf, I. E. M. et al. A high-resolution global-scale groundwater model. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 19, 823–837 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Wada, Y. et al. Global depletion of groundwater resources. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L20402 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Bruggeman, G. A. (ed.) Analytical Solutions of Geohydrological Problems Vol. 46 (Developments in Water Science, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1999).

Download references


The authors acknowledge funding for an Independent Research Fellowship from the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NE/P017819/1) (to M.O.C.); the German Science Foundation DFG (Cluster of Excellence ‘CliSAP’, EXC177, Universität Hamburg) and Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung Project PALMOD (ref. 01LP1506C) (to J.H.); the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) (grant no. 01LN1307A) (to N.M.); the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR grant ANR-14-CE01-00181-01) and the French national programme LEFE/INSU (to A.S.); and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) (Discovery grant RGPIN/341992) (to B.L.).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



The idea for the paper was conceived by M.O.C. and T.G. Analyses were carried out by all authors. The manuscript was written by M.O.C. with input from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. O. Cuthbert.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–13, Supplementary References.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cuthbert, M.O., Gleeson, T., Moosdorf, N. et al. Global patterns and dynamics of climate–groundwater interactions. Nature Clim Change 9, 137–141 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing