Europe’s water crisis is worse than assumed, according to what satellites can see of groundwater conditions.

For the second summer in a row, drought dried up rivers and reservoirs all over Europe, and wildfires raged. Photos of the Loire River in France running dry went viral. In the Czech Republic, the Elbe River made headlines by going so low that a “Hunter Stone” was revealed, a block of masonry set to warn farmers about devastating drought.

“If you see me, then weep,” the stone reads. According to the European Commission, 2022 has been the worst drought Europe has seen in 500 years.

But Europe’s water crisis is worse than empty riverbeds, portents of starvation, and low reservoirs, warn experts.

“What’s even worse is the groundwater story that people cannot see,” said hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global Institute for Water Security at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan.

Famiglietti and many others have studied the data of two decades of satellite missions by the U.S. and Germany, a series known as The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) which tracked the movements of water by measuring incremental changes in gravitational pull. Saturated surface crust is heavier than unsaturated land, by just enough to be detectable. The amount of water on the planet is constant, but where that water is is not.

According to GRACE and its scientists, Europe is draining its aquifers to make up for surface drought, and doing so far, far past the point where a few good years of rain could replenish them.

There is no part of life that water scarcity would not impact. All food requires vast resources of water. Nuclear reactors need a lot of water to remain safe. Most goods, food and otherwise, flow in and out of landlocked areas by ship. Europe’s water crisis may well bring the continent to a standstill, and sooner than predicted.

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