Cycle that involves the continuous circulation of water in the Earth-atmosphere system. Water is transferred from the oceans through the atmosphere to the continents and back to the oceans by means of evaporation, transpiration, precipitation, interception, infiltration, subterranean percolation, overland flow, runoff, and other complex processes. Although the total amount of water within the cycle remains essentially constant, its distribution among the various processes is continually changing.
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The 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, but there is always the same amount of water on the surface of the earth.
The different processes are as follows:
|Reservoir|| Volume of water|
|Ice caps & glaciers||29||2.05|
|Streams & rivers||0.0017||0.0001|
In the context of the water cycle, a reservoir represents the water contained in different steps within the cycle. The largest reservoir is the collection of oceans, accounting for 97% of the Earth's water. The next largest quantity (2%) is stored in solid form in the ice caps and glaciers. This small amount accounts for approximately 75% of all fresh water reserves on the planet. The water contained within all living organisms represents the smallest reservoir.
|Reservoir||Average residence time|
|Glaciers||20 to 100 years|
|Seasonal snow cover||2 to 6 months|
|Soil moisture||1 to 2 months|
|Groundwater: shallow||100 to 200 years|
|Groundwater: deep||10,000 years|
|Lakes (see lake retention time)||50 to 100 years|
|Rivers||2 to 6 months|
The residence time of a reservoir within the hydrologic cycle is the average time a water molecule will spend in that reservoir (see the adjacent table). It is a measure of the average age of the water in that reservoir, though some water will spend much less time than average, and some much more.
Groundwater can spend over 10,000 years beneath Earth's surface before leaving. Particularly old groundwater is called fossil water. Water stored in the soil remains there very briefly, because it is spread thinly across the Earth, and is readily lost by evaporation, transpiration, stream flow, or groundwater recharge. After evaporating, water remains in the atmosphere for about 9 days before condensing and falling to the Earth as precipitation.
In hydrology, residence times can be estimated in two ways. The more common method relies on the principle of conservation of mass and assumes the amount of water in a given reservoir is roughly constant. With this method, residence times are estimated by dividing the volume of the reservoir by the rate by which water either enters or exits the reservoir. Conceptually, this is equivalent to timing how long it would take the reservoir to become filled from empty if no water were to leave (or how long it would take the reservoir to empty from full if no water were to enter).
An alternative method to estimate residence times, gaining in popularity particularly for dating groundwater, is the use of isotopic techniques. This is done in the subfield of isotope hydrology.
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.
The scientific consensus expressed in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Summary for Policymakers is for the water cycle to continue to intensify throughout the 21st century, though this does not mean that precipitation will increase in all regions. In subtropical land areas — places that are already relatively dry — precipitation is projected to decrease during the 21st century, increasing the probability of drought. The drying is projected to be strongest near the poleward margins of the subtropics (for example, the Mediterranean Basin, South Africa, southern Australia, and the Southwestern United States). Annual precipitation amounts are expected to increase in near-equatorial regions that tend to be wet in the present climate, and also at high latitudes. These large-scale patterns are present in nearly all of the climate model simulations conducted at several international research centers as part of the 4th Assessment of the IPCC.
Glacial retreat is also an example of a changing water cycle, where the supply of water to glaciers from precipitation cannot keep up with the loss of water from melting and sublimation. Glacial retreat since 1850 has been extensive.
Human activities that alter the water cycle include:
The atmospheric hydrologic cycle over the Arctic Basin from reanalyses. Part I: Comparison with observations and previous studies
Mar 01, 2000; The Atmospheric Hydrologic Cycle over the Arctic Basin from Reanalyses. Part 1: Comparison with Observations and Previous...