Research Links Sinking Land to Regions of High Groundwater Demand

Photo collage of 2023 TGI Fellows.
Images indicate the estimated rate of land subsidence in areas with high groundwater use in the western U.S.

Excessive pumping from underground aquifers can cause the surrounding land to sink and lead to damage to streets, bridges and other infrastructure, reduced groundwater storage, and contaminated drinking water, according to researchers at Missouri S&T. They are using a form of artificial intelligence known as machine learning to map the sinking – called land subsidence – to help water policy officials make informed decisions.

Dr. Ryan Smith, an assistant professor of hydrology in the geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering department at S&T, says rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and increasing demand for freshwater are putting additional strain on aquifers. More frequent and extreme droughts as well as floods reduce the ability to capture and store water. The western U.S. has been particularly hard hit because of limited surface water availability, rapidly growing populations and high-value crops that require large amounts of water.