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NASA: 4 Billion People at Risk as 'Water Table Dropping All Over the World'

Health + Wellness
NASA: 4 Billion People at Risk as 'Water Table Dropping All Over the World'

A new analysis reveals that global water scarcity is a far greater problem than previously thought, affecting 4 billion people—two-thirds of the world's population—and will be "one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century."

Previous analyses looked at water scarcity at an annual scale and had found that water scarcity affected between 1.7 and 3.1 billion people. The new study, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, assessed water scarcity on a monthly basis, more fully capturing the specific times of year when it could be an issue.

"Water scarcity has become a global problem affecting us all," stated study co-author Arjen Hoekstra. Photo credit: Oxfam International / Flickr

"Water scarcity has become a global problem affecting us all," study co-author Arjen Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, said.

The study found that almost half of the 4 billion affected by severe water scarcity for a month or more are in India and China. Millions of others affected live in Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and Mexico.

The U.S. is far from immune to the problem, with 130 million people affected by water scarcity for at least one month a year, mostly in the states of Texas, California and Florida. And among the rivers the study notes that are fully or nearly depleted before reaching their end is the Colorado River in the West.

There are also half a billion people who face severe water scarcity year round, the analysis found.

From study:

"Direct victims of the overconsumption of water resources are the users themselves, who increasingly suffer from water shortages during droughts, resulting in reduced harvests and loss of income for farmers, threatening the livelihoods of whole communities. Businesses depending on water in their operations or supply chain also face increasing risks of water shortages. Other effects include biodiversity losses, low flows hampering navigation, land subsidence and salinization of soils and groundwater resources."

The study concludes that "[m]eeting humanity’s increasing demand for freshwater and protecting ecosystems at the same time ... will be one of the most difficult and important challenges of this century."

The new publication follows a pair of NASA studies led by researchers from the University of California Irvine that showed that the impacts of global warming along with growing demand has caused the world's water supply to drop to dangerous levels.

"The water table is dropping all over the world," Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at the time. "There's not an infinite supply of water."

"We need to get our heads together on how we manage groundwater," Famiglietti added, "because we’re running out of it."

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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