The movement of water around Earth’s surface is the hydrological (water) cycle. Water inhabits reservoirs within the cycle, such as ponds, oceans, or the atmosphere. The molecules move between these reservoirs by certain processes, including condensation and precipitation. There are only so many water molecules and these molecules cycle around. If climate cools and glaciers and ice caps grow, there is less water for the oceans and sea level will fall. The reverse can also happen.
The following section looks at the reservoirs and the processes that move water between them.
The Sun, many millions of kilometers away, provides the energy that drives the water cycle. Our nearest star directly impacts the water cycle by supplying the energy needed for evaporation.
Most of Earth’s water is stored in the oceans, where it can remain for hundreds or thousands of years.
Water changes from a liquid to a gas by evaporation to become water vapor. The Sun’s energy can evaporate water from the ocean surface or from lakes, streams, or puddles on land. Only the water molecules evaporate; the salts remain in the ocean or a fresh water reservoir.
Streams and Lakes
When water falls from the sky as rain it may enter streams and rivers that flow downward to oceans and lakes. Water that falls as snow may sit on a mountain for several months. Snow may become part of the ice in a glacier, where it may remain for hundreds or thousands of years. Snow and ice may go directly back into the air by sublimation, the process in which a solid changes directly into a gas without first becoming a liquid. Although you probably have not seen water vapor undergoing sublimation from a glacier, you may have seen dry ice sublimate in air.
Snow and ice slowly melt over time to become liquid water, which provides a steady flow of fresh water to streams, rivers, and lakes below. A water droplet falling as rain could also become part of a stream or a lake. At the surface, the water may eventually evaporate and reenter the atmosphere.
A significant amount of water infiltrates into the ground. Soil moisture is an important reservoir for water. Water trapped in soil is important for plants to grow.
Water may seep through dirt and rock below the soil and then through pores infiltrating the ground to go into Earth’s groundwater system. Groundwater enters aquifers that may store fresh water for centuries. Alternatively, the water may come to the surface through springs or find its way back to the oceans.
Plants and animals depend on water to live. They also play a role in the water cycle. Plants take up water from the soil and release large amounts of water vapor into the air through their leaves, a process known as transpiration.
People also depend on water as a natural resource. Not content to get water directly from streams or ponds, humans create canals, aqueducts, dams, and wells to collect water and direct it to where they want it
The water cycle describes all of the reservoirs of water and the processes that carry it between them.
Water changes state by evaporation, condensation, and sublimation.
Plants release water through their leaves by transpiration.