water cycle

water cycle

Earth's water is always in movement, and the water cycle, also known as the hydrologic cycle, describes the continuous movement of water on, above, and below the surface of the Earth. Since the water cycle is truly a "cycle," there is no beginning or end. Water can change states among liquid, vapor, and ice at various places in the water cycle, with these processes happening in the blink of an eye and over millions of years.


Although the balance of water on Earth remains fairly constant over time, individual water molecules can come and go in a hurry. The water in the apple you ate yesterday may contain molecules that fell as rain half-way around the world last year or was drunk by a dinosaur 100 million years ago.


Earth's water supply

In all, the Earth's water content is about 1.39 billion cubic kilometers (331 million cubic miles) and the vast bulk of it, about 96.5%, is in the global oceans. Approximately 1.7% is stored in the polar icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow, and another 1.7% is stored in groundwater, lakes, rivers, streams, and soil. Finally, a thousandth of 1% exists as water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere.


One estimate of global water distribution
(1000 km3)
Percent of total water Percent of fresh water
Oceans, seas, & bays 1,338,000 96.5 -
Ice caps, glaciers, & permanent snow 24,064 1.74 68.7
Groundwater 23,400 1.7 -
        Fresh (10,530) (0.76) 30.1
        Saline (12,870) (0.94) -
Soil moisture 16.5 0.001 0.05
Ground ice & permafrost 300 0.022 0.86
Lakes 176.4 0.013 -
        Fresh (91.0) (0.007) 0.26
        Saline (85.4) (0.006) -
12.9 0.001 0.04
Swamp water 11.47 0.0008 0.03
Rivers 2.12 0.0002 0.006
Biological water 1.12 0.0001 0.003
Total 1,385,984 100.0 100.0