ENVIRONMENT
12/05/2013 06:26 pm ET

Massive Freshwater Supply Found Trapped Under The Ocean

Jeff Clow via Getty Images

A major discovery under the ocean could help stave off the world’s looming freshwater crisis.

Australian researchers discovered 120,000 cubic miles of freshwater reserves trapped beneath the ocean floor off the coasts off Australia, China, North America and South Africa, per a new study published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature.

As the global population continues to grow, future generations face a freshwater supply shortage. But this new discovery could support life for decades to come.

“The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900,” Dr. Vincent Post, lead study author and senior lecturer at Australia’s Flinders University, told the Agence France-Presse. “Knowing about these reserves is great news because this volume of water could sustain some regions for decades.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, water covers approximately 70 percent of the Earth's surface, but less than 1 percent of that is available for human use. This data translates to 1.1 billion people worldwide lacking access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion people facing water scarcity for at least one month of the year.

U.N. Water, the United Nations’ water agency, estimates that by 2030, 47 percent of the world's population will have to face water scarcity issues -- up from the current 40 percent.

The team of scientists in Australia made its recent discovery after a review of seafloor water studies done for scientific or oil and gas exploration purposes. As it turns out, the freshwater troves they identified aren't all that unusual.

“Our research shows that fresh and brackish aquifers below the seabed are actually quite a common phenomenon,” Post said in a written statement.

The freshwater deposits formed thousands of years ago as major environmental changes occurred around the world.

“It happened all around the world, and when the sea level rose when ice caps started melting some 20,000 years ago, these areas were covered by the ocean. Many aquifers were -- and are still -- protected from seawater by layers of clay and sediment that sit on top of them,” Post said in a written statement released by the National Centre for Groundwater Research & Training.

Drilling for the trapped water would be an expensive endeavor, and engineers have only two options to tap it. They can build a platform out at sea and drill into the seabed, or drill from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers, according to the statement.

“Freshwater under the seabed is much less salty than seawater,” Post said in the statement. “This means it can be converted to drinking water with less energy than seawater desalination, and it would also leave us with a lot less hyper-saline water."

However, he warns that these water reserves are non-renewable.

“We should use them carefully," he said, "once gone, they won’t be replenished until the sea level drops again, which is not likely to happen for a very long time.”

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