Groundwater extraction for aquaculture is making the land at China’s Yellow River delta sink, and that subsidence is causing local sea levels to rise incredibly rapidly
Groundwater extraction for fish farms can cause land to sink at rates of a quarter-meter a year, according to a study of China’s Yellow River delta. The subsidence is causing local sea levels to rise nearly 100 times faster than the global average.
Global sea levels are rising at about 3 millimeters a year owing to warming waters and melting ice. But some places are seeing a much faster rise — mainly because of sinking land. Bangkok dropped by as much as 12 centimeters a year in the 1980s thanks to groundwater pumping. Oil fields near Houston, Texas, experienced a similar drop during the 1920s because of oil extraction. Deltas can also sink as old river sediments compact under their own weight and watercarrying replacement sediments is held back by dams or diverted for irrigation. “You can get crazy rates of sea-level rise,” says James Syvitski, a geologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and a co-author of thestudy, published online in Geophysical Research Letters.
The researchers found that parts of the Yellow River delta are dropping by up to 25 centimeters a year, probably because of groundwater extraction for onshore fish tanks. The link between aquaculture and subsidence has attracted little international notice. “This is a new one on me,” says Stephen Brown, a fisheries scientist at the US National Marine Fisheries Service in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We are concerned about the effect of sea-level rise on fish; not the other way around,” he says.
Robert Nicholls, who studies coastal engineering at the University of Southampton, UK, and who co-authored the chapter on coastal management for the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report, is likewise surprised by the link. “I would not have thought of this as an issue previously,” he says.
Subsidence was not mentioned in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2012 report on the state of world aquaculture, says Stephanie Higgins, a PhD geology student at the University of Colorado Boulder who led the study. “This is not yet on the industry’s radar, but it should be,” she says.
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