What Is Fossil Water? Geology and Renewability

Can these non-renewable water sources keep up with demand in the 21st century?

An underground cave that houses the thermal aquifer situated a few tens of meters from the surface.

Fossil water refers to underground reservoirs formed during the last glacial ice age.  Also known as petrowater or paleowater, fossil water borrows its name from paleontology. Like a traditional fossil, fossil water is trapped in rock—sometimes for millennia. 

These aged aquifers acquired their water from melting ice and prehistoric lakes that pooled into subterranean layers of water-porous rocks, silt, and sand. Over time, those layers were covered with more sediment, effectively sealing off the water from Earth’s surface for tens of thousands of years. 

Just 70 years ago, farmers began drilling into fossil aquifers, pumping water to previously dry climates worldwide. Today billions of people rely on fossil aquifers for their drinking water and as irrigation to grow staple food crops.

Geography and Geology

Fossil water appears all over the globe in humid, semi-arid, and arid regions as well as areas of permafrost.

Lake Vostok, for example, is one of more than 70 subglacial lakes trapped beneath Antarctica's ice sheet. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is the biggest fossil aquifer in the world and runs beneath the four northeast African nations. The Arabian peninsula, eastern Australia, the Parisian basin in France, the Great Plains of the U.S., and parts of Mexico and California all rely on paleowater for agriculture, sanitation, and consumption.

Regardless of the current climate of these places, sometime before the Holocene epoch (the geologic age in which we now live), the planet was much wetter. These more humid climate conditions allowed aquifers—water-bearing layers of semi-porous rock and other materials—to form.

Fossil aquifers are frequently contained by layers of impermeable rocks and clay, preventing the aquifer from absorbing any precipitation. Some petrowater not encased in a hard outer layer is so far beneath the ground that it's often only detectable by airborne electromagnetic surveys. Understandably, these aquifers are nearly impossible to replenish. Other fossil water sits beneath deserts where there’s not enough annual precipitation to refill the aquifers. 

Today, billions of people in some of the world’s most arid regions—North America, Iran, India, and Africa—rely almost entirely on petrowater. Research published in 2017 found that fossil water accounts for up to 85% of all groundwater in the top meter of the Earth’s crust. Most well water drawn from sources 250 meters and lower also comes from fossil aquifers.

Sustainability

If left untouched by human activities, paleowater would remain in equilibrium. But as the need to grow crops (often to feed livestock) expanded around the world in the last half of the 20th century, many farmers turned to fossil aquifers. These free water sources provided enormous advantages for communities in dry climates, turning previously inhospitable areas into lush farming zones.

Unfortunately, once fossil water has been pumped to the surface, it can take thousands of years to replenish. Experts estimate, for example, that once the Ogallala aquifer in the High Plains has been fully mined, it would take over 6,000 years to restore it to its original levels.

As an aquifer is depleted, pumping water becomes more difficult and more expensive. The water brought to the surface can become brackish, requiring desalination, especially if it’s used as drinking water. Deplete an aquifer too quickly, and it can collapse in on itself and further trap existing supplies.

The Future of Fossil Water

Because fossil water is non-renewable, aquifers around the world risk soon being mined dry: The Ogallala aquifer, which supplies nearly one-third of America’s groundwater used for irrigation, may only have 30 to 50 years of productivity remainingNASA satellite studies confirm irreparable aquifer declines in India. Experts have spent the last decade warning that Yemen was about to run out of water. In Africa, the non-renewable Nubian aquifer will have to support an estimated 731 million people by 2050.

Experts already predict that over 60% of people in the world will experience water scarcity by 2025, and thanks to global warming, increasing temperatures will only worsen matters. These stark realities understandably strike fear in the hearts of people in arid climates who depend on fossil water to cultivate resource-intensive crops like wheat and rice.

In order to support a more sustainable future, farmers in fossil-water-dependant regions must use less water, grow alternative drought-friendly crops, and rely on imports for staple foods that previously underpinned the agricultural economy.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why is fossil water important?

    Some of the world’s biggest bodies of fossil water are the primary water sources for huge swaths of the global population. That poses a problem for arid and semi-arid climates that don’t receive enough precipitation to replenish fossil aquifers, leading to fears of water scarcity, decreased staple crop production, and higher food costs.

  • How old is fossil water?

    Fossil water is at least 11,000 years old, dating back to the end of the last glacial ice age. Some fossil water, like the aquifer in Libya, has been carbon dated to 40,000 years ago.

  • Is fossil water a renewable source?

    Yes. Like fossil fuels, fossil water formed over an extended period of time during a previous geological era. Once a fossil aquifer has been depleted, it may take thousands of years to replenish it—if it can be replenished at all, given projected expectations for rising global temperatures and the demand for water to serve a growing population.

View Article Sources
  1. Siegert, M., Ellis-Evans, J., Tranter, M. et al. Physical, chemical and biological processes in Lake Vostok and other Antarctic subglacial lakesNature 414, 603–609 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/414603a

  2. Jasechko, Scott, et al. Global aquifers dominated by fossil groundwaters but wells vulnerable to modern contamination. Nature Geoscience, vol. 10, June 2017, pp. 425-430, DOI: 10.1038/NGEO2943.

  3. Glass, Nicole. "The Water Crisis in Yemen: Causes, Consequences and Solutions." Global Majority E-Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, June 2010, pp. 17-30.

  4. Sherif, M.I., Sturchio, N.C. Elevated radium levels in Nubian Aquifer groundwater of Northeastern AfricaSci Rep 11, 78 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-80160-0