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Severe Drought Explains Ground Level Rise in Western US

Aug 22, 2014 11:32 AM EDT

The severe drought gripping the western United States in recent years is causing the region's ground level to literally rise up, according to a new study.

The loss of groundwater has been so extreme that it lifted the West an average of one-sixth of an inch since 2013, according to the study, published in the journal Science.

More than just browning lawns, the research shows that the lack of water is causing an "uplift" effect as Earth's tectonic plates shift. California's snow-starved mountains rose up to 15 millimeters (more than half an inch) and on average four millimeters (0.15 of an inch) across the west.

From GPS data, scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego estimate that theses drought-ridden places are losing out on 62 trillion gallons of water - that's equivalent to a six-inch layer of water spread out over the entire western United States.

While looking over data from GPS stations throughout the west, Adrian Borsa, an assistant research geophysicist at Scripps Institution, noticed an interesting pattern. From 2003-2014, all of the stations moved upwards in the most recent years, coinciding with the timing of the current drought.

"The thing that is exceptional about this drought is that it really covers the entire region" of the Western United States, Borsa told the Los Angeles Times. "I can't tell you whether this is as big as earlier droughts, but I would say within the last 10 years, this is definitely an unprecedented change with this drought."

According to the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, 2013 was California's driest in 119 years of records, and Los Angeles and other cities around the state recorded their lowest precipitation amounts for any calendar year.

"It calls attention to the severity of this drought," Colin B. Amos, an assistant geology professor at Western Washington University, who was not involved in the study, told the Times. "This is another piece of evidence that this drought is a big problem."

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