Scientists have used satellite observations to study how the distribution of land and water on the Earth’s surface has changed over the last 30 years.
They found that the Earth’s surface has gained 115,000 sq km of water of extra water bodies and 173,000 sq km of water has now become land. The study is published in Nature Climate Change.
The interactive Aqua Monitor was developed by the Deltares Research Institute in the Netherlands. It is the first global-scale tool that shows, with a 30 metre resolution, where water has been transformed into land and vice-versa.
The largest increase in water has been on the Tibetan Plateau, where increased water from melting glaciers are creating huge new lakes.
A rise in the number of dams built over the last 30 years has also increased the number of inland water bodies. Using the satellite data, the team were able to identify previously unreported constructions in Myanmar and North Korea.
The Aral Sea, which lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has seen the the greatest conversion of water into land. Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world, the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects.
There have also been striking changes along our coastlines. The largest coastal water to land change is the construction of Palm Island and adjacent islands along the coast of Dubai. Many countries have shaped and extended their coastlines by land reclamation, including almost the entire coastline of eastern China from the Yellow Sea all the way down to Hong Kong.
Big data at everyone’s fingertips
Universally-available analytics for big satellite data may have major implications for monitoring capacity. At the very local scale, members of the general public can now make assessments without expert assistance if their houses are threatened by coastal erosion. At the regional scale, countries can monitor their water body changes and assess flooding impacts and strategy for disaster risk reduction.
Jaap Kwadijk, the Deltares scientific director: “This has never been done before. So it is difficult to imagine all the new applications that will be made using this tool. But the tool can be used by everybody and so I am sure multiple applications will emerge in the next few years”.