Articles | Volume 17, issue 12
Research article
05 Dec 2013
Research article |  | 05 Dec 2013

GRACE water storage estimates for the Middle East and other regions with significant reservoir and lake storage

L. Longuevergne, C. R. Wilson, B. R. Scanlon, and J. F. Crétaux

Abstract. While GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellites are increasingly being used to monitor total water storage (TWS) changes globally, the impact of spatial distribution of water storage within a basin is generally ignored but may be substantial. In many basins, water is often stored in reservoirs or lakes, flooded areas, small aquifer systems, and other localized regions with areas typically below GRACE resolution (~200 000 km2). The objective of this study was to assess the impact of nonuniform water storage distribution on GRACE estimates of TWS changes as basin-wide averages, focusing on surface water reservoirs and using a priori information on reservoir storage from radar altimetry.

Analysis included numerical experiments testing effects of location and areal extent of the localized mass (reservoirs) within a basin on basin-wide average water storage changes, and application to the lower Nile (Lake Nasser) and Tigris–Euphrates basins as examples. Numerical experiments show that by assuming uniform mass distribution, GRACE estimates may under- or overestimate basin-wide average water storage by up to a factor of ~2, depending on reservoir location and areal extent.

Although reservoirs generally cover less than 1% of the basin area, and their spatial extent may be unresolved by GRACE, reservoir storage may dominate water storage changes in some basins. For example, reservoir storage accounts for ~95% of seasonal water storage changes in the lower Nile and 10% in the Tigris–Euphrates. Because reservoirs are used to mitigate droughts and buffer against climate extremes, their influence on interannual timescales can be large.

For example, TWS decline during the 2007–2009 drought in the Tigris–Euphrates basin measured by GRACE was ~93 km3. Actual reservoir storage from satellite altimetry was limited to 27 km3, but their apparent impact on GRACE reached 45 km3, i.e., 50% of GRACE trend. Therefore, the actual impact of reservoirs would have been greatly underestimated (27 km3) if reservoir storage changes were assumed uniform in the basin. Consequently, estimated groundwater contribution from GRACE would have been largely overestimated in this region if the actual distribution of water was not explicitly taken into account.

Effects of point masses on GRACE estimates are not easily accounted for via simple multiplicative scaling, but in many cases independent information may be available to improve estimates. Accurate estimation of the reservoir contribution is critical, especially when separating estimating groundwater storage changes from GRACE total water storage (TWS) changes. Because the influence of spatially concentrated water storage – and more generally water distribution – is significant, GRACE estimates will be improved by combining independent water mass spatial distribution information with GRACE observations, even when reservoir storage is not the dominant mechanism. In this regard, data from the upcoming Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite mission should be an especially important companion to GRACE-FO (Follow-On) observations.