Knowing the extent of human influence on the global hydrological cycle is essential for the sustainability of freshwater resources on Earth. However, a lack of water level observations for the world's ponds, lakes and reservoirs has limited the quantification of human-managed (reservoir) changes in surface water storage compared to its natural variability. The global storage variability in surface water bodies and the extent to which it is altered by humans therefore remain unknown. Here we show that 57 per cent of the Earth's seasonal surface water storage variability occurs in human-managed reservoirs. Using measurements from NASA's ICESat-2 satellite laser altimeter, which was launched in late 2018, we assemble an extensive global water level dataset that quantifies water level variability for 227,386 water bodies from October 2018 to July 2020. We find that seasonal variability in human-managed reservoirs averages 0.86 metres, whereas natural water bodies vary by only 0.22 metres. Natural variability in surface water storage is greatest in tropical basins, whereas human-managed variability is greatest in the Middle East, southern Africa and the western USA. Strong regional patterns are also found, with human influence driving 67 per cent of surface water storage variability south of 45 degrees north and nearly 100 per cent in certain arid and semi-arid regions. As economic development, population growth and climate change continue to pressure global water resources, our approach provides a useful baseline from which ICESat-2 and future satellite missions will be able to track human modifications to the global hydrologic cycle.
Cooley S W , Ryan J C , Smith L C . Human alteration of global surface water storage variability[J]. Nature, 2021, 591(7848):78-81. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03262-3