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Earth Science

The Water Cycle: How it works, a simple and detailed explanation with definitions, diagrams, and a visualization activity!

Author’s note: As a master’s student who works with water, this one is an exciting topic for me to write about! Water is a vital resource that needs careful management in the Mountain West region of the United States. Mountain region watersheds are expected to face climate change-related challenges due to decreasing winter snowpack, changing stream flows, and growing downstream human settlements. Understanding our watersheds and the challenges they are facing is very important, not just for scientists but for everyone. It is never too early, or too late, to start learning about the environmental processes like the water cycle that make life possible for all beings. This is truly a force of nature that impacts all of us, regardless of where we live or our occupations. We all use water, and we all can find ways to use water more sustainably, work to ensure everyone can access reliable and clean water resources, and protect aquatic ecosystems (which provide some cool ecosystem services… this will be a topic for another post soon!)! The water cycle is so huge and important, I’ve decided to make TWO posts about it. My goal in writing this first part is to overview the water cycle in a straightforward but detailed way – not just for science students but for anyone and everyone who is curious about our earth’s water cycle. In the second part, I plan to introduce some of the ways humans impact the water cycle, and steps we can take to better use and manage our water resources and ecosystems. I hope this two-part post provides you with some useful background information about how the water cycle works and how we interact with the water cycle. I’ve also included some free digital learning resources related to the water cycle, linked at the bottom of this article!

Try this water cycle learn-at-home science activity for kids

What is the water cycle?

Ever wondered what keeps our streams flowing? Or why rivers don’t run out of water? Or where the water bubbling out of the ground at natural springs comes from? The answer to all these questions actually begins with our sun! The sun is like an engine, providing the necessary  energy to drive the water cycle. The water cycle is an ongoing process moving water from the oceans to the land and back.

The Water Cycle diagram – Download and print this diagram!

The water cycle begins over our oceans, where the energy from our sun causes  huge amounts of water to evaporate every day. When water evaporates, it doesn’t disappear – it becomes water vapor: water in gas form rather than liquid form. Ocean water can evaporate, but salts in the ocean cannot. Because salt cannot evaporate, evaporation separates fresh water out of the ocean. Fresh water is non-ocean water that is usable by land plants and animals, including humans! Evaporation is an important earth process that makes human life possible, because it separates the fresh water from the saltwater.

Sunset over an ocean beach
The sun fuels the water cycle by providing the energy for water to evaporate

As the evaporated water vapor rises up in the atmosphere, it cools and condenses, or starts forming tiny liquid droplets. As larger droplets form, they fall from the clouds as precipitation, such as rain or snow. Most precipitation will fall directly back into the ocean. However, sometimes clouds that formed over the ocean will move over a continent and precipitation falls on the land. When rain falls on the land, some of it flows over the surface of the land, which we call run off.  Little streams may flow into larger streams and rivers, or temporarily be stored in non-moving bodies of water like ponds and lakes. Any water on the earth’s surface, including streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and oceans is called surface water. Ultimately, all surface water will do one of three things: evaporate again, flow all the way back to the ocean, or infiltrate…

Large storm clouds over mountains in Colorado.
Precipitation falls over the Rocky Mountains, beginning its long journey back to the oceans.

To infiltrate, in other words, means to seep into the ground. When water infiltrates it fills the tiny gaps in the soils and rocks below our feet! This water is called groundwater! In the water cycle, water may infiltrate into the ground at any point between where it falls on the land as precipitation and when it flows back into the ocean. Like surface water, groundwater also moves or flows, but much more slowly than surface water. Some groundwater bubbles back out of the ground onto the surface in a spring or a gaining stream: a stream that is fed by groundwater rather than run off.  Plants will also take up groundwater through their roots and release it back into the air as water vapor through the tiny pores in their leaves, in a special type of evaporation called transpiration. 

So far, we’ve looked at water in the liquid and vapor forms. But what about water in the solid form such as ice and snow? It turns out ice and snow play an important part in the water cycle too. When snow falls on land, it can build up in one place, or accumulate. When temperatures increase, such as in springtime, the snow that built up through the winter will melt and flow into our surface and groundwaters. In certain cold and snowy areas, such as in tall mountains or near the poles, snow accumulates faster than it melts. This forms glaciers and ice sheets: long-lasting bodies of ice, made from compacted snow. Most of the fresh water on our planet is currently stored as ice in glaciers, ice sheets, and snow!

Looking back down from Byron glacier in front of snow-capped mountains
Glaciers, such as this one near Anchorage, Alaska, are an important place where fresh water is stored in the water cycle

Saltwater like ocean water is toxic to humans and land plants and animals. All the water we drink, bathe in, clean with, and use to grow plants must be fresh water. Fresh water is only a tiny fraction of the water on earth: about 97.5% of earth’s water is saltwater. That means only 2.5% of earth’s water is fresh water. Of that 2.5% freshwater, most is not usable by humans. Over two thirds of earth’s fresh water is frozen in glaciers, ice caps, and snow, and a little less than a third is groundwater. Surface water like rivers, lakes, and ponds are just a fraction of a percentage of earth’s total fresh water – and just a tiny part of a fraction of a percentage of earth’s total water overall! If you’re having trouble visualizing this, check out the free at-home activity guide to help you and your child or students visualize the percentages of fresh water from home in the kitchen or bathtub!


Part 2 of this post about the water cycle is coming soon – covering the ways humans interact with the water cycle! Subscribe to get new posts sent straight to your inbox, or follow Wild Earth Lab using the links below.

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References and Further Reading

  1. Plummer, C. C., Carlson, D. H., & Hammersley L. (2019) Physical Geology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education. (16th ed., pp. 232 – 320).
  2. U.S. Geological Survey. (n.d.). How Much Water is there on Earth? Available: https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/how-much-water-there-earth?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects

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