Most life on Earth has water as a major component; our cells, and those of plants and animals are made up of approximately 70 percent water. Vast quantities of water also cycle through the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land, and biosphere over both short and long time scales. This grand cycling of water is called the hydrologic cycle; it shapes our weather and climate, supports plant growth, and makes life itself possible. The water cycle is dominated by the oceans, where 96 percent of the water on Earth is found and where the majority of global evaporation occurs.

Water is stored for periods of time in various types of reservoirs, primarily the oceans and polar ice and glaciers. There is roughly 50 times as much water stored in the oceans than in polar ice and glaciers, which is the next largest water reservoir. The amount of time that water stays in a reservoir varies: while glaciers retain their water for an average of 40 years, deep groundwater can be held for up to 10,000 years. At the other end of the spectrum, the retention time for rivers, soil moisture, and seasonal snow cover is typically less than 6 months.

When rain and other precipitation falls on land, much of it seeps into the ground. This process, the movement of water into and through the soil and rocks, is called infiltration. How water behaves once it is in the ground is determined by the type of soil or rock through which it moves. It is primarily during this stage of the water cycle that water is purified, although the extent to which it is "cleaned" also depends on the water composition itself as well as the state of the surrounding environment. As water passes through layers of sediment and rock, many pollutants are filtered out. In general, the deeper groundwater is found, the cleaner it will be.

Water not absorbed into the soil flows across the land and into rivers, lakes, streams, and eventually to the oceans. Runoff waters can originate from precipitation or stem from melting snow or ice, although it will vary depending upon an assortment of factors, including the topography, geology, and land cover of a particular area. An expanse of land where the surface runoff and groundwater drains into a common point—usually a stream, lake, or river—is called a watershed, which can range in size from a few acres to many square miles.

And, unlike water filtered by the soil, runoff water can serve as a collector of nutrients, sediment, or other pollutants on the land that can affect the quality of water throughout a watershed.

Most water, however, returns to the air in the form of water vapor; the bulk of this evaporation occurring by means of the oceans. Roughly half of land-based evaporation occurs on the surface area of plants, called transpiration. These together are sometimes referred to as evapotranspiration. The process in which water vapor is converted back into liquid form is called condensation. Within the water cycle, it takes place primarily in the atmosphere. As water vapor moves upward in the atmosphere it cools. Droplets develop and collect as a result of gravitational pull to form clouds. Water then returns to Earth through precipitation which, depending on the temperature of the surrounding air, will take either frozen or liquid form; although, it is primarily through precipitation that water moves from the atmosphere to the Earth.




The Environmental Literacy Council