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Is our Surface Water Being Threatened by Climate Change?

Updated on November 9, 2012
CWanamaker profile image

Chris is a registered professional civil engineer and has worked on a more than 300 public and private projects over the last decade.


Fresh surface water is water that is found on Earth’s surface that has a very low amount of dissolved salts. For the purposes of this discussion, this will include all water on earth except the oceans and ground water. Fresh water is very important because an estimated 76.5% of the water that humans use (in the USA) is obtained from surface water. The rest of our water comes from groundwater supplies.

Climate change means that there is an observable change in weather patterns over a long period of time. Current climate prediction models show that there will (and has been) significant changes in the global quantity and distribution of rainfall and evapo-transpiration. More simply put, the dynamic of the hydrologic cycle is changing. Some parts of the world are experiencing unprecedented droughts, while other are experiencing record flooding.

As many as 1 in 8 people on the earth don’t have access to clean, safe water. Climate change has and is expected to continue to exacerbate this fundamental problem. We will see the greatest effect of climate change on the developing nations of the Middle East and Africa. An increase in global temperatures will increase the drought problems that already exist there. It is predicted that within 100 years climate change will strain our fresh surface water supplies to an extent never seen before.

Once inhabitable and thriving places may succumb to droughts that never end (as experienced recently in Texas, USA). Another good example of a severe drought is the one experienced in the great plains region of the United States in the 1930's.. Lack of water for years turned this once thriving agricultural area into a practical ‘dust bowl.'


When there is a lack of precipitation, it leads to an increased strain on our other fresh water supplies. It not unlikely that larges pipes will have to be constructed all over the United States to import water from neighboring countries that have water supplies. In fact, concern over drought in the Colorado river basin is so strong that four major American Water Districts are in talks to import water from Mexican desalination plants. Obviously the idea of importing water has some major implications of its own.

Climate change will have a huge effect on our frozen surface water as well. Glaciers and icebergs, which hold a large quantity of freshwater, are melting at an increasing rate. When they melt, the water mixes with the ocean and becomes un-drinkable. This will also displace many people who currently rely on glaciers for their drinking water. Glacier melt is predicted to cause an estimated 3-foot rise in the oceans. Besides displacing many people, many of our surface water reservoirs, rivers, and lakes will become inundated with seawater. Ocean rise would have profound consequences on flood-prone countries and trigger more severe weather around the world which could lead to additional contamination of fresh water reserves. This rise in the ocean will also completely eliminate several sources of water currently available to us.

As the global climate naturally changes (as it has done for millions of years), society will have to adjust accordingly. There is plenty of evidence to support that the climate is indeed changing. However, the degree and severity of humanity's impact on it is debatable. In either case, mother nature will plot its own course into the future. Perhaps the only thing that we can do is convince our nation's leaders that the future lies not with growth and consumption but with conservation and sustainability instead.

References & Resources

Bigg, Mathew. Town Learns to Live with Water 3 Hours a Day. November 22, 2007. <>.

Boyd, Robert S. Glaciers Melting Worldwide, Study Finds. August 21, 2002. <>.

Earman, Sam. Possible Impacts Of Climate Change On Groundwater And Surface Water Resources In The Western U.S.A. October 31, 2007. <>

Fox News Latino. US Looks to Mexico for More Water. October 16, 2011. <>

Hylton, Hilary. The Great State of Texas: The Drought That Wouldn't Leave Has Lone Star Farmers Scared. August 10, 2011. <,8599,2087489,00.html>

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability. November 1997. <>

Miller, Kathleen Dr. Climate Change Impacts on Water. November, 2011. <>

National Academy of Sciences. Global Warming Facts and Our Future. October 2, 2011. <>

National Resources Defense Council. Climate Change, Water, and Risk: Current Water Demands Are Not Sustainable. July, 2010. <>

RealClimate. How much future sea rise? More evidence from models and ice sheet observations. March 26, 2006. <>


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    • CWanamaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Wanamaker 

      9 years ago from Arizona

      Larry Fields - I tend to stray away from saying "Global Warming" because it implies that the only significant factor of climate change is temperature. We all know that there are many more factors involved here, such as volcanism. As you have stated, 1998 marked the end of the global upward trend in temperatures. Even a future of global cooling has the ability to significantly impact society, and our water supplies. The last cooling period that we experienced likely peaked in the early 1600's and was part of the Earth's long term climate cycles. If the saying "the best predictor of the future is the past" hold true, we may be due for a period of cooling soon.

      So perhaps my discussion of melting ice is 13 years overdue, but maybe not. Changing ocean temperatures is an additional factor that can have an effect on melting ice. Are the world's oceans warming? Overall, the evidence says no. However, the evidence does suggest that certain critical locations in the northern hemisphere have experienced some upward trends in oceanic temperatures which could pose a threat to coastal ice reserves. But then again maybe not.

      And remember, our modern anthropogenic world hasn't been around for very long. It's just a blip on the radar compared to geologic time. We've built our world based on the existing condition without much concern for past or the future. In the end, poor planning, political propaganda, and over consumption is a bigger problem then climate change is, however, this article focus on the latter.

      Thanks for reading, I always appreciate your comments.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      9 years ago from Northern California

      Fact: There's been no statistically significant Global Warming TREND for the last 13 years. And some of the less militant Warmistas are attempting a graceful retreat from earlier extreme positions. Check out the recently 'leaked' report from the IPCC.

      It's also very possible that we'll start a global cooling trend within the next several decades. A return to conditions of the Little Ice Age (LIA), which ended in the mid 19th Century, would cause significant changes in precipitation patterns in some parts of the world.

      I live in Northern California. And we Californians are fond of declaring a drought whenever precip is even slightly less than average. During the LIA, there was significantly less precip in the Northern Sierras.

      If you doubt that fact, do a day hike to Lake Aloha from Echo Lakes in the Desolation Wilderness. You'll see partially submerged trees at that end.

      Or put on your scuba gear, and go for a dive in Fallen Leaf Lake, which is nearer to Lake Tahoe. (Yes, you can drive there.) You'll see fully submerged trees at the very bottom.

      If the LIA returns, Los Angeles residents, who are dependent on water from my part of the state, will be screaming bloody murder.


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