The amount of water stored in large lakes has decreased over the past three decades due to both human and climatic drivers. Yao et al. used satellite observations, climate models, and hydrologic models to show that more than 50% of both large natural lakes and reservoirs experienced volume loss over this time (see the Perspective by Cooley). Their findings underscore the importance of better water management to protect essential ecosystem services such as freshwater storage, food supply, waterbird habitat, cycling of pollutants and nutrients, and recreation. —H. Jesse Smith
Climate change and human activities increasingly threaten lakes that store 87% of Earth’s liquid surface fresh water. Yet, recent trends and drivers of lake volume change remain largely unknown globally. Here, we analyze the 1972 largest global lakes using three decades of satellite observations, climate data, and hydrologic models, finding statistically significant storage declines for 53% of these water bodies over the period 1992–2020. The net volume loss in natural lakes is largely attributable to climate warming, increasing evaporative demand, and human water consumption, whereas sedimentation dominates storage losses in reservoirs. We estimate that roughly one-quarter of the world’s population resides in a basin of a drying lake, underscoring the necessity of incorporating climate change and sedimentation impacts into sustainable water resources management.
Fig. 1. Widespread storage decline in large global lakes from October 1992 to September 2020.
Time series and drivers of global lake water storage change, October 1992 to September 2020.
Fig. 3. Attributions of significant volume changes in natural lakes.
Fig. 4. Major losses and gains greater than 0.5 Gt year−1 in basin-wide lake water storage.
Fig. 5. Percentages of the global population residing in basins experiencing significant lake water loss.