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Earth's water

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Where is Earth's water located?

Water is continually moving around, through, and above the Earth as water vapor, liquid water, and ice. In fact, water is continually changing its form. The Earth is pretty much a "closed system," like a terrarium. That means that the Earth neither, as a whole, gains nor loses much matter, including water. Although some matter, such as meteors from outer space, are captured by Earth, very little of Earth's substances escape into outer space. This is certainly true about water. This means that the same water that existed on Earth millions of years ago is still here. Thanks to the water cycle (view a graphic of the water cycle), the same water is continually being recycled all around the globe. It is entirely possible that the water you drank for lunch was once used by Mama Alosaurus to give her baby a bath.

By the way, there is a theory that much of Earth's water came from comets hitting the planet over billions of years.

Water on and in the Earth

Where is Earth's water located and in what forms does it exist? You can see how water is distributed by viewing these bar charts. The left-side bar shows where the water on Earth exists; about 97 percent of all water is in the oceans. The middle bar shows the distribution of that three percent of all Earth's water that is freshwater. The majority, about 69 percent, is locked up in glaciers and icecaps, mainly in Greenland and Antarctica. You might be surprised that of the remaining freshwater, almost all of it is below your feet, as ground water. No matter where on Earth you are standing, chances are that, at some depth, the ground below you is saturated with water. Of all the freshwater on Earth, only about 0.3 percent is contained in rivers and lakes—yet rivers and lakes are not only the water we are most familiar with, it is also where most of the water we use in our everyday lives exists.

How much of Earth's water is available for our uses ... and in what forms does it exist? You can best see how water is distributed by viewing these pie charts:

The left-side pie chart shows that over 99 percent of all water (oceans, seas, ice, most saline water, and atmosphereic water) is not available for our uses. And even of the remaining fraction of one percent (the small brown slice in the top pie chart), much of that is out of reach. Considering that most of the water we use in everyday life comes from rivers (the small light blue slice in the right-side pie chart), you'll see we generally only make use of a tiny portion of the available water supplies. The right-side pie shows that the vast majority of the fresh water available for our uses is stored in the ground (the large brown slice in the second pie chart).

For a detailed explanation of where Earth's water is, look at the data table below. Notice how of the world's total water supply of about 332.5 million cubic miles (1,386 million cubic kilometers) of water, over 96 percent is saline. And, of the total freshwater, over 68 percent is locked up in ice and glaciers. Another 30 percent of freshwater is in the ground. Thus, surface-water sources (such as rivers) only constitute about 22,300 cubic miles (93,100 cubic kilometers), which is about 1/700th of one percent of total water, yet rivers are the source of most of the water people use.
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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 have fallen as rain half-way around the world last year or could have been used 100 million years ago by Mama Dinosaur to give her baby a bath.

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How much water is there on, in, and above the Earth?

As you know, the Earth is a watery place. About 70 percent of the Earth's surface is water-covered. But water also exists in the air as water vapor and in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers. Thanks to the water cycle our planet's water supply is constantly moving from one place to another and from one form to another. Things would get pretty stale without the water cycle!
The vast majority of water on the Earth's surface, over 98 percent, is saline water in the oceans. But it is the freshwater resources, such as the water in streams, rivers, lakes, and ground water that provide people (and all life) with most of the water they need everyday to live. Water sitting on the surface of the Earth is easy to visualize, and your view of the water cycle might be that rainfall fills up the rivers and lakes. But, the unseen water below our feet is critically important to life, also. How would you account for the flow in rivers after weeks without rain? In fact, how would you account for the water flowing down this driveway on a day when it didn't rain? The answer is that there is more to our water supply than just surface water, there is also plenty of water beneath our feet.

Even though you may only notice water on the Earth's surface, there is much more freshwater stored in the ground than there is in liquid form on the surface. In fact, some of the water you see flowing in rivers comes from seepage of ground water into river beds. Water from precipitation continually seeps into the ground to recharge the aquifers, while at the same time water from underground aquifers continually recharges rivers through seepage.
Humans are happy this happens because people make use of both kinds of water. In the United States in 2000, we used about 323 billion gallons per day of surface water and about 84.5 billion gallons per day of ground water. Although surface water is used more to supply drinking water and to irrigate cropes, ground water is vital in that it not only helps to keep rivers and lakes full, it also provides water for people in places where visible water is scarce, such as in the desert towns of the western United States. Without ground water, people would be sand-surfing in Palm Springs, California. instead of playing golf.
Just how much water is there on (and in) the Earth? Here are some numbers you can think about:

The total water supply of the world is 326 million cubic miles (mi3)(a cubic mile is an imaginary cube measuring one mile on each side), or 1,360 million cubic kilometers (km3). A cubic mile of water equals more than one trillion gallons. A cubic kilometer of water equals more than ....

About 3,100 mi3 (12,900 km3) of water, mostly in the form of water vapor, is in the atmosphere at any one time. If it all fell as precipitation at once, the Earth would be covered with only about 1 inch of water.

The 48 contiguous United States receives a total volume of about 4 mi3 (17.7 km3) of precipitation each day.

Each day, 280 mi3 (1,170 km3)of water evaporate or transpire into the atmosphere.

If all of the world's water was poured on the United States, it would cover the land to a depth of 90 miles (145 kilometers).

Of the freshwater on Earth, much more is stored in the ground than is available in lakes and rivers. More than 2,000,000 mi3 (8,400,000 km3)of freshwater is stored in the Earth, most within one-half mile of the surface. Contrast that with the 60,000 mi3 (250,000 km3) of water stored as freshwater in lakes, inland seas, and rivers. But, if you really want to find freshwater, the most is stored in the 7,000,000 mi3 (29,200,000 km3) of water found in glaciers and icecaps, mainly in the polar regions and in Greenland.

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The Water Cycle: Water Storage in Oceans

1)The ocean as a storehouse of water
The water cycle sounds like it is describing how water moves above, on, and through the Earth ... and it does. But, in fact, much more water is "in storage" for long periods of time than is actually moving through the cycle. The storehouses for the vast majority of all water on Earth are the oceans. It is estimated that of the 332,500,000 cubic miles (mi3) (1,386,000,000 cubic kilometers (km3)) of the world's water supply, about 321,000,000 mi3 (1,338,000,000 km3) is stored in oceans. That is about 96.5 percent. It is also estimated that the oceans supply about 90 percent of the evaporated water that goes into the water cycle.

The water in the oceans is saltwater (saline), but, what do we mean by "saline water?" Saline water contains significant amounts (referred to as "concentrations") of dissolved salts. In this case, the concentration is the amount (by weight) of salt in water, as expressed in "parts per million" (ppm). Water is saline if it has a concentration of more than 1,000 ppm of dissolved salts; ocean water contains about 35,000 ppm of salt.

2)The volume of the oceans does change ... slowly

Of course, nothing involving the water cycle is really permanent, even the amount of water in the oceans. Over the "short term" of hundreds of years the oceans' volumes don't change much. But the amount of water in the oceans does change over the long term. For instance, just 1,000 years ago when William of Normandy invaded England, he landed near Hastings, which, though a few miles inland today, was then a coastal town. And a few thousand years ago humans crossed to North America from Asia at the (now underwater) Bering Strait.

During colder climatic periods more ice caps and glaciers form, and enough of the global water supply accumulates as ice to lessen the amounts in other parts of the water cycle. The reverse is true during warm periods. During the last ice age glaciers covered almost one-third of Earth's land mass, with the result being that the oceans were about 400 feet (122 meters) lower than today. During the last global "warm spell," about 125,000 years ago, the seas were about 18 feet (5.5. meters) higher than they are now. About three million years ago the oceans could have been up to 165 feet (50 meters) higher.

3)Oceans in movement: Tides
Of course the oceans are always in movement. The moon influences daily tides, which make the beach a more interesting place to go. Tides vary greatly around the world, and in some places can be quite dramatic. The highest tides occur in confined estuaries, such as the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, Canada, Ungava Bay, Quebec, and Bristol Channel in Britain. The Bay of Fundy has maximum tides of up to 53 feet (16 meters) during certain times of the year.

4)Oceans in movement: "Rivers" in the oceans
If you have ever been seasick (we hope not), then you know how the ocean is never still. You might think that the water in the oceans moves around because of waves, which are driven by winds. But, actually, there are currents and "rivers" in the oceans that move massive amounts of water around the world. These movements have a great deal of influence on the water cycle. The Kuroshio Current, off the shores of Japan, is the largest current. It can travel between 25 and 75 miles (40 and 121 kilometers) a day, 1-3 miles (1.4-4.8 kilometers) per hour, and extends some 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) deep. The Gulf Stream is a well known stream of warm water in the Atlantic Ocean, moving water from the Gulf of Mexico across the Atlantic Ocean towards Great Britain. At a speed of 60 miles (97 kilometers) per day, the Gulf stream moves 100 times as much water as all the rivers on Earth. Coming from warm climates, the Gulf Stream moves warmer water to the North Atlantic. Cornwall, at the southwest corner of Great Britain, is sometimes referred to as the "Cornish Riviera" because of the milder climate attributable to the Gulf Stream—notice the palm trees growing at the cottage in the picture! To be honest, we've read that the palm trees there are a hardy variety, but it certainly gives the image of a mild climate.
This diagram shows sea-surface temperatures of the North Atlantic Ocean. Data are from NASA satellite observations. Cold waters are shown in darker colors, whereas orange and yellow indicate the warmest temperatures. The Gulf Stream is visible as a warm water current travelling northward along the coast of North America and eastward into the central Atlantic Ocean. As it continues its journey heat from the ocean is lost to the atmosphere, warming the air above it. Cornwall and its palm trees are located just west of London, and if you draw a line westward, you'll end up near Newfoundland, Canada. Cornwall and Newfoundland might be at similar latitudes, but you would be hard-pressed to find any palm trees growing in Canada! (Source: NASA: Earth Observatory. Map by Robert Simmon)
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The Water Cycle: Water Storage in Ice and Snow

1)Stored water as part of the water cycle

The water cycle describes how water moves above, on, and through the Earth. But, in fact, much more water is "in storage" at any one time than is actually moving through the cycle. By storage, we mean water that is locked up in its present state for a relatively long period of time. Short-term storage might be days or weeks for water in a lake, but it could be thousands of years for deep ground-water storage or even longer for water at the bottom of an ice cap, such as in Greenland. In the grand scheme of things, this water is still part of the water cycle

2)Ice caps around the world
The white areas in this map show glaciers and ice sheets around the world (reproduced from National Geographic WORLD, February 1977, no. 18, p. 6, with permission). The vast majority, almost 90 percent, of Earth's ice mass is in Antarctica, while the Greenland ice cap contains 10 percent of the total global ice mass. The Greenland ice cap is an interesting part of the water cycle. The ice cap became so large over time (about 600,000 cubic miles (mi3) or 2.5 million cubic kilometers (km3)) because more snow fell than melted. Over the millennia, as the snow got deeper, it compressed and became ice. The ice cap averages about 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) in thickness, but can be as thick as 14,000 feet (4,300 meters). The ice is so heavy that the land below it has been pressed down into the shape of a bowl. In many places, glaciers on Greenland reach to the sea, and one estimate is that as much as 125 mi3 (517 km3) of ice "calves" into the ocean each year—one of Greenland's contributions to the global water cycle. Ocean-bound icebergs travel with the currents, melting along the way. Some icebergs have been seen, in much smaller form, as far south as the island of Bermuda.

3)Ice and glaciers come and go
The climate, on a global scale, is always changing, although usually not at a rate fast enough for people to notice. There have been many warm periods, such as when the dinosaurs lived (about 100 million years ago) and many cold periods, such as the last ice age of about 18,000 years ago. During the last ice age much of the northern hemisphere was covered in ice and glaciers, and, as this map from the University of Arizona shows, they covered nearly all of Canada, much of northern Asia and Europe, and extended well into the United States.

Glaciers are still around today; tens of thousands of them are in Alaska. Climatic factors still affect them today and during the current warmer climate, they can retreat in size at a rate easily measured on a yearly scale.

4)Ice caps influence the weather
Just because water in an ice cap or glacier is not moving does not mean that it does not have a direct effect on other aspects of the water cycle and the weather. Ice is very white, and since white reflects sunlight (and thus, heat), large ice fields can determine weather patterns. Air temperatures can be higher a mile above ice caps than at the surface, and wind patterns, which affect weather systems, can be dramatic around ice-covered landscapes

5)Some glacier and ice cap facts
Glacial ice covers 10-11 percent of all land.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), if all glaciers melted today the seas would rise about 230 feet (70 meters).
During the last ice age (when glaciers covered more land area than today) the sea level was about 400 feet (122 meters) lower than it is today. At that time, glaciers covered almost one-third of the land.
During the last warm spell, 125,000 years ago, the seas were about 18 feet (5.5 meters) higher than they are today. About three million years ago the seas could have been up to 165 feet (50.3 meters) higher.
Largest surface area of any glacier in the contiguous United States: Emmons Glacier, Washington (4.3 square miles or 11 square kilometers)

6)ice caps and global water distribution
Even though the amount of water locked up in glaciers and ice caps is a small percentage of all water on (and in) the Earth, it represents a large percentage of the world's total freshwater. As these charts and the data table show, the amount of water locked up in ice and snow is only about 1.7 percent of all water on Earth, but the majority of total freshwater on Earth, about 68.7 percent, is held in ice caps and glaciers