GeoLog

GeoLog

Geosciences Column: When water is scarce, understanding how we can save it is important

Geosciences Column: When water is scarce, understanding how we can save it is important

Supplies of water on Earth are running dry. The rate at which an ever growing population consumes this precious resource is not matched by our Planet’s ability to replenish it. Water scarcity is proving a problem globally, with regions such as California and Brazil facing some of the most severe water shortages on record. Used for drinking, agriculture and industrial processes, water forms an fundamental part of our day to day life, so finding ways in which to preserve this vital resource is important.

The global population now exceeds 7.3 billion people. One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century will be to feed this ever growing population – by 2050 crop production will have to double to meet demand. At the same time, agricultural irrigation currently accounts for approximately 80-90% of global freshwater consumption, while agricultural areas requiring irrigation in the past 50 years having roughly doubled. With both space and freshwater in short supply, innovative solutions and fresh approaches will be need if the increase in crop demand is to be met.

The fields in the image are farmed on seemingly vertical hillsides, terrace their fields nearly to the top of every available mountain, and plough by hand or with a draft animal. Terraces, by Cheng Su, distributed via Imaggeo.

The fields in the image are farmed on seemingly vertical hillsides. Terraced fields are  present nearly to the top of every available mountain, and ploughed by hand or with a draft animal. Terraces, by Cheng Su, distributed via imaggeo.

It might come as a bit of a surprise that current irrigations systems operate at efficiency of 50% or below. Water is wasted as it is transported to the crops as well as whilst it is applied to the plants and is affected, not only by the irrigation system itself, but also meteorological and environmental factors. A recent paper published in the open access, EGU Journal, Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, has found that improving current irrigation practices can contribute to sustainable food security.

To better understand where efficiencies might be made in irrigation systems, the scientists used a new approach: They took into account ‘manageable’ factors such as water lost through evaporation, run-off, deep percolation and that taken on by weeds. At the same time, assessing mechanical performance of the systems and the vegetation dynamics, climate, soils and land use properties of a particular region. These factors were fed into a global irrigation model implemented on the three main irrigation types: surface, sprinkler and drip.

The researchers created maps of the global distribution of irrigation systems at a country level, based on the results from their model. The maps showed that areas where surface irrigation – were water is distributed over the surface of a field – is common, irrigation system efficiency was low, sometimes registering values of less than 30%! This is particularly applicable to Central, south and Southeast Asia due to the widespread cultivation of rice. In contrast, areas where there is a high usage of sprinkler systems – similar to natural rainfall – and drip systems (were water is allowed to drip slowly to the root of the plant), such as North America, Brazil, South Africa, Ivory Coast and Europe, efficiency was above the global average.

Global patterns of beneficial irrigation efficiency (Eb, ratio of transpired and diverted water) for each irrigation system – (a) surface, (b) sprinkler, and (c) drip, calculated as area-weighted mean over CFTs (excl. “others” and pastures). This figure is based on theoretical scenarios, in which each system is respectively assumed to be applied on the entire irrigated area.

Global patterns of beneficial irrigation efficiency for each irrigation system (a) surface, (b) sprinkler, and (c) drip. This figure is based on theoretical scenarios, in which each system is respectively assumed to be applied on the entire irrigated area. From Jägermeyr et al., 2015. Click to enlarge.

To investigate how the three irrigation system types compared to one another, irrespective of their geographical distribution, the researchers produced another map. They found that surface irrigation is the least efficient of the three methods, with values at less than 29%. Sprinkler and drip systems perform significantly better, with values of 51 and 70%, respectively. Interestingly, regardless of the system used, irrigation efficiency in Pakistan, northeast India and Bangladesh is always at below global average values. Crop type can also play an important role: rice, pules and rapeseed are linked to poor system efficiencies, whilst, maize sugarcane and root crops (such as potatoes) are above average.

Jägermeyr, the study’s lead author, and his team calculated that 2469km³ of water is withdrawn yearly for irrigation purposes – that is close to 5 times the volume of water held in the Canadian/American Lake Erie. Of that, 608 km³ is non-beneficially consumed. In other words, lost through evaporation, interception (by foliage leaves) and during delivery to the plants and represents an area where substantial water savings could be made.

Replacing surface irrigation with a sprinkler or drip system proves one of the best solutions to the problem, with a potential 76% reduction in non-beneficial consumption of water. This would mean that up to 68% less water would be needed for the purposes of irrigating crops.

Therefore, irrigation system improvements could make an important contribution to sustainably increase food production. The water saved would allow for irrigated areas to be expanded and yields increased on farms where production is currently limited by an insufficient water supply.

The upgrade of irrigations systems seems a very attractive solution to the problem, but the researchers warn that its suitability must be assessed on a river basin level. Factors such as crop management, soil type and local climate may affect the suitability of this approach in some geographical areas. The study finds that regions such as the Sahel, Korea and Madagascar, as well as temperate regions in Europe, North America, Brazil and parts of China would benefit the most from irrigation system improvements.

 

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer.

 

References

Jägermeyr, J., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Schaphoff, S., Kummu, M., and Lucht, W.: Water savings potentials of irrigation systems: global simulation of processes and linkages, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 3073-3091, doi:10.5194/hess-19-3073-2015, 2015.

Gleick, P.H., Christian-Smith, j., Cooley, H.: Water-use efficiency and productivity: rethinking the basin approach, Water International, 36, 7, doi: 10.1080/02508060.2011.631873, 2011.

Tilman, D., Blazer, C., Hill, J., Befort, B.L.: Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture, PNAS 108, (50), 20260-20264, doi:10.1073/pnas.1116437108, 2011.

Imaggeo on Mondays: The place where water runs through rocks

Imaggeo on Mondays: The place where water runs through rocks

Antelope Canyon, located in Arizona, USA, was formed by erosion of the Navajo Sandstone, primarily due to flash flooding and secondarily due to other sub-aerial processes (think of physical weathering processes such as freeze-thaw weathering exfoliation and salt crystallisation). Rainwater runs into the extensive basin above the slot canyon sections, picking up speed and sand as it rushes into the narrow passageways. Over time the passageways are eroded away, making the corridors deeper and smoothing hard edges in such a way as to form characteristic ‘flowing’ shapes in the rock.

The Navajo Sandstone was deposited in an aeolian (wind-blown) environment composed of large sand dunes: imagine a sea of sand, or an erg, as it is known scientifically, not dissimilar to the present Sarah desert landscape. The exact age of the Navajo Sandstone is controversial, with dated ages ranging from Triassic to early Jurassic, spanning a time period between 250 million years ago to approximately 175 million years ago. The difficulty in determining the exact age of the unit lies in its lack of age diagnostic fossils. The Navajo Sandstone is not alone in this quandary, dating is a common problem in aeolian sediments.

“The picture was taken during a three week Southwest USA road trip in summer 2012. One of the highlights was the visit to Antelope slot canyon, which is located on Navajo land east of Page, Arizona. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tsé bighánílíní, which means the place where water runs through rocks,” explains Frederik Tack, an atmospheric scientist from the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy and author of today’s Imaggeo on Monday’s photograph.

The erosive processes which form the canyon are still ongoing. There is an elevated risk of flash floods, meaning the canyon can only be visited as part of guide tours.

“The canyon was actually quite crowded which made taking this picture challenging, especially as I wanted to capture the peace and solitude of the landscape,” describes Tack.

The effort was worth it: Waved rocks of Antelope slot canyon was one of the EGU’s 2015 Photo Contest finalists!

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

General Assembly 2015: Time-lapse animations

General Assembly 2015: Time-lapse animations

During the EGU General Assembly 2015, at four separate locations in the Austria Center Vienna, 72 000 pictures were taken to create time-lapse animations. The animations capture the essence of the conference. Re-live your time at the General Assembly by watching the animations, or get a taste for what to expect if 2016 will be your first time at the conference.

Entrance and exhibition

A day in exhibition area: the entrance hall on Wednesday, 15 April 2015. (Credit: EGU/Copernicus)

Science and networking

This animation shows the poster hall A on Friday 17 April 2015.(Credit: EGU/Copernicus)

PICO, poster, presentations

A PICO (Presenting Interactive Content) spot, poster boards, and one lecture room entrance recorded in poster hall Y on Tuesday, 14 April 2015. (Credit: EGU/Copernicus)

Art Intervention

The ‘scales in art‘ was an exhibition space at the EGU 2015 General Assembly, which had A Voyage Through Scales as a theme. The exhibition invited the participants to the dialogue between science and art. At the space, attendees watched the artistic interpretation of the theme developing over the week, with artist Eva Petrič. (Credit: EGU/Copernicus). You can find out more about the exhibition in this video, by EGU Press Assistant, Stephanie McClellan.

You can also catch up with all the the best bits of the conference and highlights of a productive week by taking a look at this year’s highlights video. Couldn’t make it to the General Assembly or a session clash meant you missed one of the union wide talks? Take a look at our YouTube Channel, we’ve recently uploaded videos of selected scientific sessions as well as of the nine press conferences which took place during the week.

We hope to see many of you at next year’s EGU General Assembly 2016 which takes place on: 17 – 22 April 2016, in Vienna, Austria.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Late Holocene Fever

Imaggeo on Mondays: Late Holocene Fever

A huge ice fall off the Perito Moreno glacier in the Los Glaciares National Park, southwest Santa Cruz Province, Argentina, was voted one of the three best pictures entered into the EGU’s annual photo contest, by the conference participants at the 2015 General Assembly.

Perito Moreno glacier is one of 48 glaciers feeding into the Southern Patagonia ice field, which combined with the Northern Patagonia ice field, comprise the largest temperate ice mass in the Southern Hemisphere. Like many other mountain glaciers, Perito Moreno, is highly sensitive to climate change. At the surface of a glacier, erosive processes know as ablation, can remove ice from the bulk of the glacial mass. If the ice lost is not replaced in sufficient quantities by rainfall and snow provided by weather systems, the energy balance of the glacier is upset and the glacier starts to shrink. At the glacial surface, the processes of accumulation and ablation, clearly manifest the strict connection between glaciers and climate.

In a recent interview, Bernard Francou, a renowned French glaciologist, explained that glacier depletion in the Andes region has increased dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. In recent decades the glacier recession rates increased at an unprecedented rate when compared to the last the last three centuries. It is estimated that glaciers in this region have lost between 35% and 50% of their area and volume since 1976.

Christian Massari, a hydrology postdoctoral researcher of the Italian National Research Council, says “capturing the precise moment when the large chunk of ice broke off the glacier front was not easy task. It required concentration to patiently wait two hours, on a hot January day, to capture the critical moment.”

You can watch a video of a similar ice fall event, which took place in January 2012, here.

Southern Patagonia Ice Field. Credit: Astronaut photograph ISS038-E-47324 was acquired on February 13, 2014, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 65 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 38 crew. It has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed.

Southern Patagonia Ice Field . Credit: Astronaut photograph ISS038-E-47324 was acquired on February 13, 2014, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 65 millimeter lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility and the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 38 crew. It has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast, and lens artifacts have been removed. (Distributed via Nasa Earth Observatory, Image of the Day ).

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

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