Freshwater aquifer discovered under ocean floor

freshwater1We may have heard or actually seen people washing clothes in some parts of the country when the sea ebbs farther from the shore line.

At least I have seen this rare occurrence growing up in Baybay, Leyte, and it always made me wonder why.

Surely, there was fresh water coming out from the ground, which we could describe as spring water, but why was there spring water in the sea area?

The scientific explanation has now surfaced when researchers in South Australia discovered huge freshwater aquifers beneath the ocean floors located off Australia, China, North America and South Africa.

“The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s subsurface in the past century since 1900,” says lead author Dr. Vincent Post of the National Center for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT) and the School of the Environment at Flinders University.

They say the amounts could sustain some regions of the world for decades and stave off, at least temporarily, a global water crisis, if and when it occurs.

According to Post, these reserves formed over the past hundreds of thousands of years when on average the sea level was much lower than it is today, and when the coastline was farther out.

“So when it rained, the water would infiltrate into the ground and fill up the water table in areas that are nowadays under the sea,” he explained. “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.”

He added that many of the aquifers are protected from seawater by layers of clay and sediment that sit on top of them.

The aquifers are similar to those below land, which much of the world relies on for drinking water. Their salinity is low enough for them to be turned into potable water.

“Freshwater under the seabed is much less salty than seawater,” said Post. “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.”

While it may be a potential alternative for fresh water supply, extracting it, however, could be expensive.

“There are two ways to access this water – build a platform out at sea and drill into the seabed, or drill from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers,” said Post.

While offshore drilling can be very costly, he said this source of freshwater should be assessed and considered in terms of cost, sustainability and environmental impact against other water sources such as desalination, or even building large new dams on land.

Post also warns that these newly discovered aquifers are non-renewable.

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

Indeed, an interesting discovery and study that has helped me understand now fully my childhood curiosity.


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