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Where is Earth’s Water?
“Water, Water, Everywhere….”
You’ve heard the phrase, and for water, it really is true. Earth’s water is (almost) everywhere: above the Earth in the air and clouds, on the surface of the Earth in rivers, oceans, ice, plants, in living organisms, and inside the Earth in the top few miles of the ground.
For an estimated explanation of where Earth’s water exists, look at this bar chart. You may know that the water cycle describes the movement of Earth’s water, so realize that the chart and table below represent the presence of Earth’s water at a single point in time. If you check back in a million years, no doubt these numbers will be different!
- Left bar: All water, freshwater and saline, on, in, and above the Earth.
- Center bar: All freshwater
- Right bar: Only the portion of freshwater residing in surface water (rivers and lakes, etc), snow and ice, and relatively-shallow ground water.
Here is a bar chart showing where all water on, in, and above the Earth exists. The left-side bar chart shows how almost all of Earth’s water is saline and is found in the oceans. Of the small amount that is actually freshwater, only a relatively small portion is available to sustain human, plant, and animal life.
Where is all of the Earth’s water?
The ocean holds about 97 percent of the Earth’s water; the remaining three percent is distributed in many different places, including glaciers and ice, below the ground, in rivers and lakes, and in the atmosphere.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are over 332,519,000 cubic miles of water on the planet. A cubic mile is the volume of a cube measuring one mile on each side. Of this vast volume of water, NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center estimates that 321,003,271 cubic miles is in the ocean.
Distribution of Earth’s Water
Earth’s oceans contain 97% of the planet’s water, so just 3% is fresh water, water with low concentrations of salts. Most fresh water is trapped as ice in the vast glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland.
A storage location for water such as an ocean, glacier, pond, or even the atmosphere is known as a reservoir. A water molecule may pass through a reservoir very quickly or may remain for much longer.
The amount of time
The amount of time a molecule stays in a reservoir is known as its residence time.Earth’s oceans contain 97% of the planet’s water, so just 3% is fresh water, water with low concentrations of salts.
Most fresh water is trapped as ice in the vast glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland. A storage location for water such as an ocean, glacier, pond, or even the atmosphere is known as a reservoir.
A water molecule may pass through a reservoir very quickly or may remain for much longer. The amount of time a molecule stays in a reservoir is known as its residence time.
Three States of Water
Because of the unique properties of water, water molecules can cycle through almost anywhere on Earth. The water molecule found in your glass of water today could have erupted from a volcano early in Earth history.
In the intervening billions of years, the molecule probably spent time in a glacier or far below the ground. The molecule surely was high up in the atmosphere and maybe deep in the belly of a dinosaur.
Where will that water molecule go next?
Water is the only substance on Earth that is present in all three states of matter – as a solid, liquid or gas.
Along with that, Earth is the only planet where water is present in all three states.
Because of the ranges in temperature in specific locations around the planet, all three phases may be present in a single location or in a region. The three phases are solid (ice or snow), liquid (water), and gas (water vapor).
The Water Cycle
Because Earth’s water is present in all three states, it can get into a variety of environments around the planet. The movement of water around Earth’s surface is the hydrologic (water) cycle.
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. The oceans are discussed in detail in the chapter Earth’s Oceans.
Water changes what?
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 freshwater reservoir.
The water vapor remains in the atmosphere until it undergoes condensation to become tiny droplets of liquid. The droplets gather in clouds, which are blown about the globe by wind.
As the water droplets in the clouds collide and grow, they fall from the sky as precipitation. Precipitation can be rain, sleet, hail, or snow. Sometimes precipitation falls back into the ocean and sometimes it falls onto the land surface.