Breakthrough provides picture of underground water

Superman isn’t the only one who can see through solid surfaces. In a development that could revolutionize the management of precious groundwater around the world, Stanford researchers have pioneered the use of satellites to accurately measure levels of water stored hundreds of feet below ground. Their findings were published recently in Water Resources Research.

Groundwater provides 25 to 40 percent of all drinking water worldwide, and is the primary source of freshwater in many arid countries, according to the National Groundwater Association. About 60 percent of all withdrawn groundwater goes to crop irrigation. In the United States, the number is closer to 70 percent. In much of the world, however, underground reservoirs or aquifers are poorly managed and rapidly depleted due to a lack of water-level data. Developing useful groundwater models, availability predictions and water budgets is very challenging.

Study co-author Rosemary Knight, a professor of geophysics and senior fellow, by courtesy, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, compared groundwater use to a mismanaged bank account: “It’s like me saying I’m going to retire and live off my savings without knowing how much is in the account.”

Lead author Jessica Reeves, a postdoctoral scholar in geophysics, extended Knight’s analogy to the connection among farmers who depend on the same groundwater source. “Imagine your account was connected to someone else’s account, and they were withdrawing from it without your knowing.”

Until now, the only way a water manager could gather data about the state of water tables in a watershed was to drill monitoring wells. The process is time and resource intensive, especially for confined aquifers, which are deep reservoirs separated from the ground surface by multiple layers of impermeable clay. Even with monitoring wells, good data is not guaranteed. Much of the data available from monitoring wells across the American West is old and of varying quality and scientific usefulness. Compounding the problem, not all well data is openly shared.

To solve these challenges, Reeves, Knight, Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated geophysics and electrical engineering Professor Howard Zebker, Stanford civil and environmental engineering Professor Peter Kitanidis and Willem SchreĆ¼der of Principia Mathematica Inc. looked to the sky.

The basic concept: Satellites that use electromagnetic waves to monitor changes in the elevation of Earth’s surface to within a millimeter could be mined for clues about groundwater. The technology, Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), had previously been used primarily to collect data on volcanoes, earthquakes and landslides.

With funding from NASA, the researchers used InSAR to make measurements at 15 locations in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an important agricultural region and flyway for migrating birds. Based on observed changes in Earth’s surface, the scientists compiled water-level measurements for confined aquifers at three of the sampling locations that matched the data from nearby monitoring wells.

“If we can get this working in between wells, we can measure groundwater levels across vast areas without using lots of on-the-ground monitors,” Reeves said.

The breakthrough holds the potential for giving resource managers in Colorado and elsewhere valuable data as they build models to assess scenarios such as the effect on groundwater from population increases and droughts.

Just as computers and smartphones inevitably get faster, satellite data will only improve. That means more and better data for monitoring and managing groundwater. Eventually, InSAR data could play a vital role in measuring seasonal changes in groundwater supply and help determine levels for sustainable water use.

In the meantime, Knight envisions a Stanford-based, user-friendly online database that consolidates InSAR findings and a range of other current remote sensing data for soil moisture, precipitation and other components of a water budget. “Very few, if any, groundwater managers are tapping into any of the data,” Knight said. With Zebker, postdoctoral fellow Jingyi Chen and colleagues at the University of South Carolina, Knight recently submitted a grant proposal for this concept to NASA.

Large earthquakes may broadcast warnings, but is anyone tuning in to listen

Like geological ninjas, earthquakes can strike without warning. But there may be a way to detect the footfalls of large earthquakes before they strike, alerting their potential victims a week or more in advance. A Stanford professor thinks a method to provide just such warnings may have been buried in the scientific literature for over 40 years.

In October, Japan instituted a nationwide earthquake warning system that heralds the advance of a big earthquake; its sophisticated machinery senses the shaking deep in the earth and transmits a warning signal that can beat the tremors to the surface by seconds. Antony Fraser-Smith, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and of geophysics, has evidence that big temblors emit a burst of ultra-low-frequency electromagnetic radio waves days or even weeks before they hit. The problem is that nobody is paying enough attention.

Fraser-Smith has been interested in electromagnetic signals for decades. Most of these waves come from space, he said, generated in the upper atmosphere by the sun and then beamed down to Earth.

In 1989, Fraser-Smith and his research team were monitoring ultra-low-frequency radio waves in a remote location in the Santa Cruz Mountains as part of a long-term study of the signals reaching Earth from space. On Oct. 5, 1989, their equipment suddenly reported a large signal, and the signal stayed up for the next 12 days. At 2:00 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, the signal jumped even higher, about 20 to 30 times higher than what the instruments would normally ever measure, Fraser-Smith said. At 5:04 p.m. the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Monterey Bay and San Francisco Bay areas, killing 63 people and causing severe damage across the region.

Fraser-Smith originally thought there was something wrong with the equipment. After ruling out the possibility of technical malfunctions, he and his research team started to think the Loma Prieta quake had quietly announced its impending arrival, and that their equipment just happened to be in the right place at the right time to pick up the message.

“Most scientists necessarily make measurements on small earthquakes because that’s what occurs all the time,” Fraser-Smith said. “To make a measurement on a large earthquake you have to be lucky, which we were.”

Along with Stephen Park, earth sciences professor at the University of California-Riverside, and Frank Morrison, professor emeritus of earth and planetary science at UC-Berkeley, Fraser-Smith continued to study the phenomenon of earthquakes emitting electromagnetic waves through a study funded by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

When the USGS terminated the funding in 1999, he decided to move on to other things. But he was recently drawn back into this issue by a local private company that wanted to use his methods to develop earthquake warning systems.

“I took a new look at the measurements, concentrating entirely on large earthquakes,” Fraser-Smith said, “and all of a sudden I could see the forest through the trees.”

He found three other studies describing electromagnetic surges before large earthquakes, just as he had found at the Loma Prieta site. The earliest report was from the Great Alaska earthquake (M9.2) in 1964. Up until now, most of the focus for earthquake warnings and predictions has been on seismological studies, but no seismic measurements have ever shown this kind of warning before a big quake, Fraser-Smith said.

This technique will probably only yield results for earthquakes of approximately magnitude 7 or higher, because background waves from the atmosphere will tend to mask any smaller signals. But these are the quakes people are most concerned about anyway, from a safety and damage point of view.

Some seismologists are suspicious that these results are real, Fraser-Smith said. But it would take little effort to verify or disprove them. He is calling for federal funding for a mission-oriented study that would place approximately 30 of the ultra-low-frequency-detecting instruments around the world at hotspots for big quakes. It would cost around $3 million to buy 30 of these machines, he said, which is cheap compared to the cost of many other large studies.

Every year, there are on average 10 earthquakes of magnitude 7 or higher around the world. So within just a few years, he said, you could potentially have 10 new measurements of electromagnetic waves before big quakes-surely enough to determine whether the previous four findings were real.

Fraser-Smith will present his findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting this week in San Francisco. His talk is scheduled for 8:45 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 13.