The hydrologic cycle is the continuous circulation of water throughout Earth and between Earth’s systems. At various stages, water—which in most cases is synonymous with the hydrosphere—moves through the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the geosphere, in each case performing functions essential to the survival of the planet and its life-forms. Thus, over time, water evaporates from the oceans; then falls as precipitation; is absorbed by the land; and, after some period of time, makes its way back to the oceans to begin the cycle again. The total amount of water on Earth has not changed in many billions of years, though the distribution of water does. The water that we see, though vital to humans and other living things, makes up only about 0.0001% of the total volume of water on Earth; far more is underground and in other compartments of the environment.


Water and the Hydrosphere

As we have noted, water and the hydrosphere are practically synonymous, but not completely so. The hydrosphere is the sum total of water on Earth, except for that portion in the atmosphere. This combines all water underground—which, as we shall see, constitutes the vast majority of water on the planet—as well as all freshwater in streams, rivers, and lakes; saltwater in seas and oceans; and frozen water in icebergs, glaciers, and other forms of ice (see Glaciology).
It is almost unnecessary to point out that water is essential to life. Human bodies, after all,are almost entirely made of water, and without water we would die much sooner than we would if we were denied food. Humans are not the only organisms dependent on water; whereas there are forms of life designated as anaerobic, meaning that they do not require oxygen, virtually nothing that lives can survive independent of water. Thus, the biosphere, which combines all living things and all recently deceased things, is connected intimately with the hydrosphere.

Water on earth

Throughout most of the modern era of scientific study—from the 1500s, which is to say most of the era of useful scientific study in all of human history—it has been assumed that water is unique to Earth. Presumably, if and when we found life on another planet, that planet also would contain water. But until that time, so it was assumed, we could be assured that the only planet with life was also the only planet with water.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, however, as evidence began to gather that Mars contains ice crystals on its surface, this exclusive association of water with Earth has been challenged. As it turns out, frozen water exists in several places within our solar system—as well it might, since water on Earth had to arrive from somewhere. It is believed, in fact, that water arrived on Earth at a very early stage, carried on meteors that showered the planet from space (see the entries Planetary Science and Sun, Moon, and Earth).
Since about three billion years ago, the amount of water on Earth has remained relatively constant. The majority of that water, however, is not in the biosphere, the atmosphere, or what we normally associate with the hydrosphere—that is, the visible rivers, lakes, oceans, and ice formations on Earth’s surface. Rather, the largest portion of water on Earth is hidden away in the geosphere—that is, the upper portion of Earth’s crust, on which humans live and from which we obtain the minerals and grow the plants that constitute much of the world we know.
Water molecules evaporating from a solution.
Water molecules evaporating from a solution.

Water Compartments in the Environment

In the course of circulating throughout Earth, water passes from the hydrosphere to the atmosphere. It does so through the processes of evaporation and transpiration. The first of these processes, of course, is the means whereby liquid water is converted into a gaseous state and transported to the atmosphere, while the second one—a less familiar term—is the process by which plants lose water through their stomata, small openings on the undersides of leaves. Earth scientists sometimes speak of the two as a single phenomenon, evapotranspiration.
Evaporation and transpiration, as well as the process whereby such moisture is returned to the solid earth—that is, precipitation—are discussed in the essay Evapotranspiration and Precipitation.
Still, the atmosphere is just one of several “compartments” in which water is stored within the larger environment. Among the other important places in which water is found are the oceans and other surface waters, ice in its many forms, and aquifers. The latter are underground rock formations in which groundwater—water resources that occupy pores in bedrock—is stored.

Imbalances in the system

The total amount of water in all these compartments is fixed, but water moves readily between various compartments through the processes of evaporation, precipitation, and surface and subsurface flows. The hydrologic cycle is thus a system all its own, a “system” (in scientific terms) being any set of interactions that can be set apart mentally from the rest of the universe for the purposes of study, observation, and measurement. Its net input and output balance each other. There may be imbalances of input and output in particular areas, which will manifest as drought or flooding.
Flooding, as well as other aspects of the hydrosphere and its study, is discussed in the essay Hydrology. As for drought, its immediate cause is a lack of precipitation, though other causes can be responsible for the removal of water from the local environment. For instance, at present a large portion of Earth’s water is tied up in glaciers and other ice formations, but at other times in the planet’s history this ice has been melted, leaving much of the continental mass that we know today submerged under water (see Glaciology).

Accounting for earth’s water

Earth’s total water supplies are so large that instead of being measured by gallons or other units of volume, they are measured in terms of tons or metric tons, designated as tonnes. Nonetheless, for comparison’s sake, consider the following figures in light of the fact that a gallon (3.8 l) of water weighs 8.4 lb. (3.8 kg). A ton contains 238 gal., and a tonne has 1,000 l.
Just as heat from the Sun accounts for the lion’s share of Earth’s total energy budget (see Energy and Earth), the vast majority of water on Earth comes from the deep lithosphere, the upper layer of Earth’s interior, comprising the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle. In this vast region are contained 2.76 X 1019 tons (2.5 X 1019 tonnes). This figure, equal to 27.6 billion billion tons, is about 94.7% of the global total.
The next largest compartment is the oceans, which contain 1.41 X 10is tons (1.38 X 1018 tonnes), or 5.2% of the total. Ice caps, glaciers, and icebergs contain 1.74 X 1016 tons (0.017 X 1016 tonnes), thus accounting for most of the remaining 0.1% of Earth’s water. Beyond these amounts are much smaller quantities representing shallow groundwater (2.76 X 1014 tons, or 2.5 X 1014 tonnes); inland surface waters, such as lakes and rivers (2.76 X 1013 tons, or 2.5 X 1013 tonnes); and the atmosphere (1.43 X 1013 tons, or 1.3 X 1013 tonnes).


The Life of a Water Droplet

Now let us follow the progress of a single water droplet as it passes through the water cycle. This particular droplet, like all others, has passed through the cycle countless times over the course of the past few billion years, and in its various incarnations it has existed as groundwater, as moisture in the atmosphere, and as ice.
For the short span of Earth’s existence that humans have occupied the planet, it is conceivable that our droplet has been consumed—either directly, as liquid water, or indirectly, as part of the water content in animal or vegetable material. That would mean that it also has been excreted, after which it will have continued the cycle of circulation. In theory, it might well be part of the water in which humans bathe, brush their teeth, or wash their clothes.

Water and foreign material

Of course, personal hygiene as we know it today is an extremely recent development: for instance, regular toothbrushing as a practice among the whole population began in the United States only around the turn of the nineteenth century. Still, it is a bit disconcerting to think that the water in which we brush our teeth today may have floated down a sewer pipe at another time. Nonetheless, by moving water through so many locales, the hydrologic cycle has a built-in cleansing component.
This cleansing component can be illustrated by the experience of saltwater, which despite its presence in the ocean is actually a small portion of Earth’s total water supply. The reason is that the salt seldom travels with the water; as soon as the water evaporates, the salt is left behind. This is why people on the proverbial desert island or in other survival situations use evaporation to make saltwater drinkable.
Likewise, saltwater as such cannot survive the transition from liquid water to ice: as the water freezes, the ice (which has a much lower freezing point) simply is precipitated and left behind. Just as salt does not travel with water as it makes its way through the various stages of the hydrologic cycle, so other varieties of foreign matter are left behind as well; as long as water is not allowed to stagnate, it usually is cleansed in the course of traveling between the ground and the atmosphere.
This is not to say that water typically exists in a pure form. Often called the universal solvent, water has such a capacity to absorb other substances that it is unlikely ever to appear in pure form unless it is distilled under laboratory conditions. Water in mountain streams, for instance, absorbs fragments of rock as it travels downhill, slowly eroding the surrounding rock and soil.

From the Watershed to Points Beyond

On a particular watershed—an area of terrain from which water flows into a stream, river, or lake—our hypothetical water droplet may enter from a number of directions. In the simplest model of water flow, it comes from precipitation, including rain, snow, or even mist from clouds. The water has to go somewhere, and it may go either up or down. It may return to the atmosphere as evapotranspiration; it may enter the ground; or, if it reaches the solid earth at some elevation above sea level, it may enter a stream and flow ultimately to the ocean.
For water to enter the atmosphere generally requires an extensive surface area of vegetation, which supports high rates of transpiration. This transpiration, combined with evaporation from such inorganic surfaces as moist soil or bodies of water, puts a great deal of water into the atmosphere. Without significant evapotranspiration, however, it is necessary for the water to drain from the watershed, either as seepage to deep groundwater or as flow in the form of a stream.

The five stages of the hydrologic cycle

The overall process of the hydrologic cycle can be divided into five parts: condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, and evaporation. Water vapor in the atmosphere condenses, forming clouds, which eventually become so saturated that they release the water to the solid earth in the form of precipitation. When precipitation enters the ground, it is known as infiltration.
The Arkansas River, part of the Ogallala Aquifer, runs through irrigated fields in Kansas. Irrigation places a big demand on the Ogallala's diminishing water supply.
The Arkansas River, part of the Ogallala Aquifer, runs through irrigated fields in Kansas. Irrigation places a big demand on the Ogallala’s diminishing water supply.
Infiltration can be great or small, depending on the permeability of the ground. The soil of a rainforest, for instance, has so much organic matter that it is likely to be highly permeable. On the other hand, cities have large amounts of what land developers call impervious surface: roads, buildings, and other areas in which concrete and other materials prevent water from infiltrating the ground.
Assuming that water is unable to infiltrate, it becomes runoff. Runoff is simply surface water, which may take the form of streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. If runoff occurs in an area that is not already a body of water, flood conditions may ensue. Thus, water may either infiltrate or become runoff, but as long as it remains close to the surface, it will experience evaporation.
In evaporation energy from the Sun changes liquid water into gaseous form, transporting it as a vapor into the atmosphere. Thus, the water is returned to the air, where it condenses and resumes the cycle we have described. As noted earlier, the water on or near Earth’s surface is a small portion of the total. What about groundwater far below the surface? Let us now examine a particularly notable example of an aquifer, or groundwater reservoir.

The Ogallala Aquifer

Located beneath the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer provides a vast store of groundwater that supports a large portion of American agriculture. The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Regional Aquifer, was discovered in the early years of the nineteenth century. It did not become a truly significant economic resource, however, until the second half of the twentieth century, when advanced pumping technology made possible large-scale irrigation from the aquifer’s supplies. By 1980 the Ogallala supported some 170,000 wells and accounted for fully one-third of all water used for irrigation purposes in the United States.
Centered in Nebraska, the aquifer underlies parts of seven other states: South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. It stretches 800 mi. (1,287 km) from north to south and 200 mi. (322 km) from east to west at its widest point. All told, the Ogallala covers some 175,000 sq. mi. (453,250 sq km), an area larger than Germany—all of it underground.
In Nebraska, the aquifer is between 400 ft. and 1,200 ft. (130-400 m) deep, while at the southern edges its depth extends no more than 100 ft. (30 m). Composed of porous sand, silt, and clay formations deposited by wind and water from the Rocky Mountains, the Ogallala is made up of several sections, called formations. The largest of these is the Ogallala formation, which accounts for about 77% of its total volume.

Using up the Ogallala

The Ogallala is particularly important to local agriculture because the states that it serves are home to numerous dry areas. Yet high-volume pumping of the underground reserves has reduced the available groundwater, much as the pumping of oil gradually is consuming Earth’s fossil-fuel reserves. Indeed, the water of the Ogallala is known as fossil water, meaning that it has been stored underground for millions of years, just as the coal, oil, and gas that runs modern industrial civilization has.
Of course, the water from the Ogallala is not simply used up in an irreversible process, as is the case with fossil fuels; nonetheless, the rapidly accelerating reduction of its water supplies is cause for some alarm. Less than 0.5% of the water removed from this aquifer is being returned to the ground, and if the current rate of pumping increases, the supplies will be 80% depleted by 2020.
The consequences of this depletion are already being felt in Kansas, where streams and rivers, dependent on groundwater to feed their flow, are running dry. In that state alone, more than 700 mi. (1,126 km) of rivers that formerly flowed year-round have been reduced to dry channels. In New Mexico and Texas, use of center-pivot irrigation, which requires a well capable of pumping 750 gal. (2,839 l) per minute, is disappearing because the local aquifer can no longer sustain such volumes.
In addition to the problem of diminishing supplies, contamination is an issue. As more and more agricultural chemicals seep into an ever shrinking reservoir, the towns of the high plains—places once known for their pure, clean groundwater—now have tap water that is considered unsafe for children and pregnant women. Overuse of the Ogallala is also exacting a financial toll, as more and more wells run dry and farms go bankrupt.


Aquifer: An underground rock formation in which groundwater is stored.
Bedrock: The solid rock that lies below the C horizon, the deepest layer of soil.
Biosphere: A combination of all living things on Earth—plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquatic life, insects, viruses, single-cell organisms, and so on—as well as all formerly living things that have not yet decomposed.
Evaporation: The process whereby liquid water is converted into a gaseous state and transported to the atmosphere. Evapotranspiration: The loss of water to the atmosphere via the processes of evaporation and transpiration. geosphere: The upper part of Earth’s continental crust, or that portion of the solid earth on which human beings live and which provides them with most of their food and natural resources. groundwater: Underground water resources that occupy the pores in bedrock. hydrologic cycle: The continuous circulation of water throughout Earth and between various earth systems. hydrologic sciences: Areas of the earth sciences concerned with the study of the hydrosphere. Among these areas of study are hydrology, glaciology, and oceanography.
Hydrology: The study of the hydrosphere, including the distribution of water on Earth, its circulation through the hydrologic cycle, the physical and chemical properties of water, and the interaction between the hydrosphere and other earth systems.
Hydrosphere: The entirety of Earth’s water, excluding water vapor in the atmosphere but including all oceans, lakes, streams, groundwater, snow, and ice.
Lithosphere: The upper layer of Earth’s interior, including the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle.
Precipitation: When discussing the hydrologic cycle or meteorology, precipitation refers to the water, in liquid or solid form, that falls to the ground when the atmosphere has become saturated with moisture.
System: Any set of interactions that can be set apart mentally from the rest of the universe for the purposes of study, observation, and measurement.
Transpiration: The process whereby plants lose water through their stomata, small openings on the undersides of leaves.
Watershed: An area of terrain from which water flows into a stream, river, lake, or other large body.


Despite the environmental challenges posed by such situations as the exhaustion of the Ogallala, the hydrologic cycle continues to roll on. As it does, it is sustained in large part by processes we cannot see: the movement of groundwater from the aquifer into streams or the evapotranspiration of surface waters to the atmosphere. Yet the movement of waters along the surface, because it is visible and recognizable to humans, attracts human attention in a way that many of these other components of the hydrologic cycle do not.
Rivers and other forms of surface water actually account for a relatively small portion of the planet’s water supply, but they loom large in the human imagination as the result of their impact on our lives. The first human civilizations developed along rivers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, and today many a great city lies along a river. Rivers provide us with a means of transportation and recreation, with hydroelectric power, and even—after the river water has been treated—with water for drinking and bathing.

Formation of rivers

Rivers usually form from tributaries, such as springs. As the river flows, it is fed by more tributaries and by groundwater and continues on its way at various speeds, depending on the terrain. Finally, the river discharges into an ocean, a lake, or a desert basin.
River waters typically begin with precipitation, whether in the form of rainwater or melting snow. They also are fed by groundwater exuding from bedrock to the surface. When precipitation falls on ground that is either steeply sloped or already saturated, the runoff moves along Earth’s surface, initially in an even, paper-thin sheet. As it goes along, however, it begins to form parallel rills, and its flow becomes turbulent. As the rills pass over fine soil or silt, they dig shallow channels, or runnels.
At some point in their flow, the runnels merge with one another, until there are enough of them to form a stream. Once enough streams have converged to create a continuously flowing body of water, it becomes a brook, and once the volume of water carried reaches a certain level, the brook becomes a river. As we have already noted, however, a river is really the sum of its tributaries, and thus hydrologists speak of river systems rather than single rivers.

River systems

A particularly impressive example of a river system is the vast Mississippi-Missouri, which drains the central United States. Most of the rivers between the Rockies and the Appalachians that do not empty directly into the Gulf of Mexico feed this system. This system includes the Ohio, itself an impressive river that divides the eastern United States. Indeed, just as the Mississippi separates east from west in America, the Ohio separates north from south.
After the Ohio and the Mississippi converge, at the spot where Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky meet, they retain their separate identities for many miles. A strip of clear water runs along the river’s eastern side, while to the west of this strip the water is a cloudy yellow—indicating a heavier amount of sediment in the Mississippi than in the Ohio. A similar phenomenon occurs where the “Blue Nile” and “White Nile,” tributaries of another great river—both named for the appearance of the water—meet at Khartoum in Sudan.

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