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Study: Climate change threatens Arizona’s karst springs

Keegan Donovan monitoring a spring in Arizona
Courtesy of Keegan Donovan
Keegan Donovan monitoring a spring in Arizona

A new study from Northern Arizona University shows how climate change is shrinking vital springs in the Grand Canyon and along the Mogollon Rim. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

Karst springs typically form in limestone along faults and fractures, and supply critical drinking water in Arizona. The study found they are sustained largely by snowmelt. Lead author Keegan Donavan says snow is melting faster or falling more often as rain because of climate change.

"If the snow melts quickly, the water flushes through the system quickly," Donovan explains, "and with a declining snowpack, the reservoir vanishes."

Donovan continuously monitored four springs in Arizona for up to a decade to track how water moves through them.

Ecohydrologist Abe Springer says monitoring like that is rare. "Our monitoring is really helpful for local land and resource managers to understand how much water is in them, for claiming water rights…or understanding how they response to climate change."

As well as supplying drinking water to Grand Canyon Village and other Arizona towns, karst springs also feed rivers, support biodiversity, and can be culturally and spiritually significant to regional tribes.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.