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Processes of the Water Cycle

The processes of the water cycle including evaporation, precipitation and sublimation carry water between reservoirs.

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Processes of the Water Cycle

Where have these water molecules been?

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's 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?

The Water Cycle

The movement of water around Earth’s surface is the hydrological (water) cycle (Figure below). Water inhabits reservoirs within the cycle, such as ponds, oceans, or the atmosphere. The molecules move between these reservoirs by certain processes, including condensation and precipitation. There are only so many water molecules and these molecules cycle around. If climate cools and glaciers and ice caps grow, there is less water for the oceans and sea level will fall. The reverse can also happen.

The following section looks at the reservoirs and the processes that move water between them.

Because it is a cycle, the water cycle has no beginning and no end.

Solar Energy

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.  The Solar energy provides the heat that moves through the atmosphere


Heat is taken in or released when an object changes state, or changes from a gas to a liquid, or a liquid to a solid. This heat is called latent heat. When a substance changes state, latent heat is released or absorbed. A substance that is changing its state of matter does not change temperature. All of the energy that is released or absorbed goes toward changing the material’s state.

For example, imagine a pot of boiling water on a stove burner: that water is at 100oC (212oF). If you increase the temperature of the burner, more heat enters the water. The water remains at its boiling temperature, but the additional energy goes into changing the water from liquid to gas. With more heat the water evaporates more rapidly. When water changes from a liquid to a gas it takes in heat. Since evaporation takes in heat, this is called evaporative cooling. Evaporative cooling is an inexpensive way to cool homes in hot, dry areas.

Substances also differ in their specific heat, the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of the material by 1.0oC (1.8oF). Water has a very high specific heat, which means it takes a lot of energy to change the temperature of water. Let's compare a puddle and asphalt, for example. If you are walking barefoot on a sunny day, which would you rather walk across, the shallow puddle or an asphalt parking lot? Because of its high specific heat, the water stays cooler than the asphalt, even though it receives the same amount of solar radiation.


 Temperature is a measure of how fast the atoms in a material are vibrating. High temperature particles vibrate faster than low temperature particles. Rapidly vibrating atoms smash together, which generates heat. As a material cools down, the atoms vibrate more slowly and collide less frequently. As a result, they emit less heat. What is the difference between heat and temperature?

  •     Temperature measures how fast a material’s atoms are vibrating.
  •     Heat measures the material’s total energy.


Most of Earth’s water is stored in the oceans, where it can remain for hundreds or thousands of years.


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 fresh water 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.

For a little fun, watch this video. This water cycle song focuses on the role of the sun in moving H2O from one reservoir to another. The movement of all sorts of matter between reservoirs depends on Earth’s internal or external sources of energy (7c): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zx_1g5pGFLI&feature=related (2:38).

This animation shows the annual cycle of monthly mean precipitation around the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MeanMonthlyP.gif.

Streams and Lakes

When water falls from the sky as rain it may enter streams and rivers that flow downward to oceans and lakes. Water that falls as snow may sit on a mountain for several months. Snow may become part of the ice in a glacier, where it may remain for hundreds or thousands of years. Snow and ice may go directly back into the air by sublimation, the process in which a solid changes directly into a gas without first becoming a liquid. Although you probably have not seen water vapor undergoing sublimation from a glacier, you may have seen dry ice sublimate in air.

Snow and ice slowly melt over time to become liquid water, which provides a steady flow of fresh water to streams, rivers, and lakes below. A water droplet falling as rain could also become part of a stream or a lake. At the surface, the water may eventually evaporate and reenter the atmosphere.

Heat at Earth’s Surface

About half of the solar radiation that strikes the top of the atmosphere is filtered out before it reaches the ground. This energy can be absorbed by atmospheric gases, reflected by clouds, or scattered. Scattering occurs when a light wave strikes a particle and bounces off in some other direction.

About 3% of the energy that strikes the ground is reflected back into the atmosphere. The rest is absorbed by rocks, soil, and water and then radiated back into the air as heat. These infrared wavelengths can only be seen by infrared sensors.

The basics of Earth's annual heat budget are described in this video (4b): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjj2i3hNQF0&feature=related (5:40).

How the water cycle works and how rising global temperatures will affect the water cycle, especially in California, are the topics of this Quest video.

Watch it at http://www.kqed.org/quest/television/tracking-raindrops/.


  • The water cycle describes all of the reservoirs of water and the processes that carry it between them.
  • Water changes state by evaporation, condensation, and sublimation.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

http://www.hippocampus.org/Earth%20Science \begin{align*}\rightarrow\end{align*} Environmental Science \begin{align*}\rightarrow\end{align*} Search: Water Cycle

1. What is condensation?

2. List the types of precipitation.

3. What is infiltration?

4. What is surface runoff?

5. Explain what happens with groundwater.

6. Explain the difference between evaporation and transpiration.

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