Drought-induced uplift in the western United States as observed by the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory GPS network
Abstract:The western United States (WUS) has been experiencing severe drought since 2013. The solid earth response to the accompanying loss of surface and near-surface water mass should be a broad region of uplift. We use seasonally-adjusted time series from continuously operating GPS stations in the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory and several smaller networks to measure this uplift, which reaches 15 mm in the California Coastal Ranges and Sierra Nevada and has a median value of 4 mm over the entire WUS. The pattern of mass loss due to the drought, which we recover from an inversion of uplift observations, ranges up to 50 cm of water equivalent and is consistent with observed decreases in precipitation and streamflow. We estimate the total deficit to be 240 Gt, equivalent to a uniform 10 cm layer of water over the entire region, or the magnitude of the current annual mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet.
In the WUS, interannual changes in crustal loading are driven by changes in cool-season precipitation, which cause variations in surface water, snowpack, soil moisture, and groundwater. The results here demonstrate that the existing network of continuous GPS stations can be used to recover loading changes due to both wet and dry climate patterns. This suggests a new role for GPS networks such as that of the Plate Boundary Observatory. The exceptional stability of the GPS monumentation means that this network is also capable of monitoring the long-term effects of regional climate change. Surface displacement observations from GPS have the potential to expand the capabilities of the current hydrological observing network for monitoring current and future hydrological changes, with obvious social and economic benefits.