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.
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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 https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.7393304.
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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.).
Supplementary Figures 1–13, Supplementary References.