Scientists Uncover Massive Freshwater Reserves Under the Sea

Discovery brings new hope for a less water stressed future.

By Kendra Pierre-Louis on December 5, 2013 1:07 PM EST

Boy drinks water from a tap stand at the school, NEWAH WASH water project in Puware Shikhar, Udayapur District, Nepal.
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Photo Library

Australian researchers revealed on Thursday that they have confirmed the existence of significant water reserves located beneath the ocean seabed on continental shelves off the coasts of Australia, China, North America, and South Africa. In a study published in the latest edition of Nature, the researchers reviews past seafloor water studies done for oil and gas exploration purposes as well as for scientific research. Lead author Vincent Post of Australia's Finders University told the AFP, "By combining all this information we've demonstrated that the freshwater below the seafloor is a common finding and not some anomaly that only occurs under very special circumstances."

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Water, at the risk of sounding clichéd, is life. Fresh water, the low sodium liquid we depend upon for drinking, agriculture, and bathing makes up a mere three percent of total global water supplies; of that, roughly 70 percent is locked in our planet's glaciers and ice caps and only about one percent of total fresh water supplies are available for human use.

It's unsurprising then, that United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned earlier this year at the UN's International Day of Biological Diversity that, "We live in an increasingly water insecure world where demand often outstrips supply and where water quality often fails to meet minimum standards. Under current trends, future demands for water will not be met." More than 40 percent of people around the world already live under conditions of water scarcity. 780 million people lack access to clean water, and water related disease stemming from insufficient water supplies kills roughly 3.4 million people every year.

These underwater reserves were formed millions of years ago when areas now under water were still at surface level. Water from rainfall was stored underground in the same way that ground water is currently stored. When the polar ice caps melted 20,000 years ago, sea level rose, and these areas went underwater. The fresh water supplies, however, remained intact, protected by clay and sediment. While this discovery is promising, accessibility is still a concern. We'd have to drill for the water, which is an expensive method of water retrieval. Similarly, special care is necessary to avoid the pollution of the rest of the water supplies by its surrounding salt water. Finally, the water is a limited resource — much like the Ogallala aquifer and fossil water supplies around the world, should these supplies be tapped they would likely not be replenished — so their use would have to be carefully considered.

"Freshwater on our planet is increasingly under stress and strain so the discovery of significant new stores off the coast is very exciting," Post, "It means that more options can be considered to help reduce the impact of droughts and continental water shortages."

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