The Hydrologic Cycle - How it works

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.


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—

WATER MOLECULES EVAPORATING FROM A SOLUTION. (© K. Eward/Photo Researchers. Reproduced by permission.)
© K. Eward/Photo Researchers
. Reproduced by permission. )
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 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.


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).


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 × 10 19 tons (2.5 × 10 19 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 × 10 18 tons (1.38 × 10 18 tonnes), or 5.2% of the total. Ice caps, glaciers, and icebergs contain 1.74 × 10 16 tons (0.017 × 10 16 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 × 10 14 tons, or 2.5 × 10 14 tonnes); inland surface waters, such as lakes and rivers (2.76 × 10 13 tons, or 2.5 × 10 13 tonnes); and the atmosphere (1.43 × 10 13 tons, or 1.3 × 10 13 tonnes).

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