EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Global groundwater archetypes: a new typology of groundwater interactions with social and ecological systems and an outlook for sustainable development

Xander Huggins1,2,3, Tom Gleeson1,4, Karen G. Villholth5, Juan C. Rocha6, and James S. Famiglietti2,7
Xander Huggins et al.
  • 1Department of Civil Engineering, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada (
  • 2Global Institute for Water Security, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada
  • 3International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria
  • 4School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada
  • 5Water Cycle Innovation (Pty) Ltd., Bela-Bela, South Africa
  • 6Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
  • 7School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, USA

Groundwater resources do not exist in isolation but are deeply connected with social and ecological systems. As humans continue to modify the land surface, drive climate change, and place greater pressures on global freshwater resources, it is increasingly necessary to assess global groundwater resources through their relationships to these coupled systems. While several global classifications of physical groundwater systems exist, there is no data-driven global typology based on groundwater interactions with connected social and ecological systems. Though physical attributes remain hydrogeologically important, a more expansive systems-oriented classification is needed for policy development, applied research, and to develop the next generation of global hydrological models.

We fill this gap by producing a spatially-explicit, moderate resolution (5 arcminute) global map of groundwater system archetypes based on groundwater interactions with social and ecological systems. These include interactions with streamflow, ecosystems, climate, agriculture, the economy, and water governance and management, all underpinned by existing global data. Archetypes, each with a unique set of interaction strengths and combinations, form a finite set of characteristic “fingerprints” that represent the dominant modes of interactions between groundwater and connected social and ecological systems. We find all WHYMAP large aquifer systems of the world are characterized by multiple social-ecological archetypes, suggesting that differentiated, context-appropriate approaches are necessary within large aquifers that are often assumed as uniform in global assessments and initiatives.

We derive archetypes using multiple clustering algorithms and assign archetype membership based on majority agreement across clustering methods after cluster reclassification to create comparable maps. This multiple-method approach renders the archetypes more robust and less contingent on a single clustering algorithm while simultaneously enabling greater representation of archetype uncertainty.

We additionally provide an outlook on sustainable development opportunities and challenges for each archetype. We summarize data sets that represent notable social-ecological outcomes  related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including: crop yield gaps (SDG 2), remotely sensed groundwater storage trends (SDG 6), economic inequality (SDG 10), human modification of terrestrial systems (SDG 15), and likelihood for hydropolitical interaction (SDG 16), among others. 

This work provides a number of useful contributions. First, the combination of archetyping (i.e., system characterization) and archetype-specific SDG outlook analysis provides a robust, data-driven overview of the role of groundwater in the global sustainability discourse. Secondly, the archetypes identify social-ecological system similarities across the globe, which may support interregional cooperation and networking, coordinated investment and interventions. Thirdly, as we harness the rapid growth in global data that document groundwater system interactions as the basis for our analysis, we simultaneously provide a synthesis and snapshot of the pertinent global data space. This snapshot can be used to identify the need for further data collection, especially on socio-economic interactions that remain underrepresented in global data. And finally, the archetypes raise awareness, build capacity, and shift mental models about the emerging perspective that it is necessary to conceptualize groundwater as a socially and ecologically connected resource.

How to cite: Huggins, X., Gleeson, T., Villholth, K. G., Rocha, J. C., and Famiglietti, J. S.: Global groundwater archetypes: a new typology of groundwater interactions with social and ecological systems and an outlook for sustainable development, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-8930,, 2023.

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