In a new survey of the sub-seafloor off the U.S. Northeast coast, scientists have made a surprising discovery: a gigantic aquifer of relatively fresh water trapped in porous sediments lying below the salty ocean. It appears to be the largest such formation yet found in the world. The aquifer stretches from the shore at least from Massachusetts to New Jersey, extending more or less continuously out about 50 miles to the edge of the continental shelf.

If found on the surface, it would create a lake covering some 15,000 square miles. The study suggests that such aquifers probably lie off many other coasts worldwide, and could provide desperately needed water for arid areas that are now in danger of running out.

The researchers employed innovative measurements of electromagnetic waves to map the water, which remained invisible to other technologies. “We knew there was fresh water down there in isolated places, but we did not know the extent or geometry,” said lead author Chloe Gustafson, a PhD. candidate at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It could turn out to be an important resource in other parts of the world.” The study appears this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

The water probably got under the seabed in one of two different ways, say the researchers. Some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, toward the end of the last glacial age, much of the world’s water was locked up in mile-deep ice; in North America, it extended through what is now northern New Jersey, Long Island and the New England coast. Sea levels were much lower, exposing much of what is now the underwater U.S. continental shelf.

When the ice melted, sediments formed huge river deltas on top of the shelf, and fresh water got trapped there in scattered pockets. Later, sea levels rose. Up to now, the trapping of such “fossil” water has been the common explanation for any fresh water found under the ocean.


(Release by Earth Institute/Columbia University)