It's no secret that the absence of rain for an extended period of time has dire consequences. After all, as they say, 'they don't call it drought for nothing'.

But new information is surfacing that sheds new light on just how extreme those consequences can become, and there is also new information that indicates the drought is forcing farmers and government officials alike to consider new ways to deal with serious water shortages.

Taking them by the numbers, researchers are beginning to realize that as water tables continue to drop, the earth responds in an unexpected way. If you live anywhere in the Western U.S. for example, you may not have noticed, but the ground beneath your feet is actually a little higher than it was just a few years ago.

A new study recently released indicates that the loss of water weight beneath the planet's surface has actually caused the land mass to rise in the Western United States, especially in California -- nearly 15 milliliters. The results of the study contradict what many scientists assumed for many long years, namely, when water dries up beneath the ground, the surface drops to fill the void, effectively decreasing surface elevation.

Not so, according to the results of a study released last month in Science.

Using information from 700-plus GPS stations across the country, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the area directly west of New Mexico has risen by an average of four millimeters this year, and an area near the California coast has risen as much as 15 milliliters during the same period. While the increase or rise in elevation is not, well, earth shattering, it does indicate a lack of water--a substantial drought--has a major effect on earth science.

"It looks as if they've lost maybe a foot and a half of water in those places relative to their average level before the drought took hold," said co-author Daniel Cayan, a climatologist with Scripps Institution at the University of California.

If there is any good news coming from the new study it is that armed with this new information, scientists can now determine how much water is or isn't spread across a landscape, according to Roland Bürgmann, a professor at the University of California.

Bürgmann and Cayan are among a growing group of researchers learning that surface and near-surface water supplies have an important influence on the Earth's crust. A falling water table; rising surface elevation -- who would have guessed?