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The Thirst for Bitcoin: Mining’s Rising Water Consumption Raises Concerns

Recent research has illuminated a growing environmental concern in the world of cryptocurrency: the escalating water footprint of Bitcoin mining. According to a study by Alex de Vries, a doctoral candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, published in the peer-reviewed journal Cells Report Sustainability, Bitcoin’s annual water consumption has surged by 278% since 2020, reaching an astonishing 591 billion gallons this year.

This dramatic increase in water use raises alarms, especially considering the acute water scarcity issues in key Bitcoin mining regions like the western United States and Kazakhstan. The energy-intensive process of Bitcoin mining, which involves computers solving complex calculations to generate new tokens, requires substantial water resources for cooling purposes. This cooling is essential for both the computer servers directly involved in mining and the power plants that supply their electricity.

The impact of this water usage is twofold: it contributes to water loss through evaporation and places additional strain on already dwindling groundwater supplies. De Vries’ research, which employs Cambridge data on large-scale US Bitcoin operations and compares it to the water intensity of electric generation on each grid, highlights a worrying trend. When accounting for direct usage, the total water footprint of US Bitcoin miners could be compared to the yearly average consumption of about 300,000 American households, a figure on par with a city the size of Washington, D.C.

De Vries proposes a solution to mitigate this environmental impact: shifting mining operations to areas that predominantly use renewable energy sources, thereby reducing water consumption. However, some uncertainty surrounds these findings, as the Cambridge data sample only represents 44% of the global total in Bitcoin mining. Moreover, a contrasting UN study from October 2021, based on different data, estimated a significantly lower water footprint of 255 billion gallons for that year, compared to De Vries’ 415 billion.

As the cryptocurrency sector continues to evolve, these findings underscore the importance of considering the environmental implications of Bitcoin mining, particularly its water consumption, in the broader context of global sustainability efforts.