The water cycle (or hydrologic cycle) describes the cyclic movement of water as molecules make their way from the Earth's surface to the atmosphere, and back again. This gigantic system, powered by energy from the sun, is a continuous exchange of moisture between the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land. However, before the Biblical global flood the Earth's hydrological cycle may have been very much different than it is today. The book of Genesis describes the original creation to have no rain, but was instead watered by free-flowing springs.
and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground- Genesis 2:5-6
|“||The original hydrologic cycle was thus drastically different from that of the present day. The present cycle, which began at the time of the great Flood, involves global and continental air mass movements, and annual and seasonal temperature changes. It is summarized quite scientifically in such Scripture passages as Ecclesiastes 1:6-7; Isaiah 55:10-11; Job 28:24-26; Job 36:26-29; Psalm 135:6-7, and others. This present cycle centers around the solar evaporation of ocean waters, transportation to the continents in the atmospheric circulation, condensation and precipitation in the form of rain and snow, and transportation back to the oceans via rivers. In the original world, however, there was no rainfall on the earth. As originally created, the earth’s daily water supply came primarily from local evaporation and condensation. There was also, as noted later, a system of spring-fed rivers.||”|
The sun drives the water cycle as it heats water in the oceans. Some of it evaporates as vapor into the air. Ice and snow can sublimate directly into water vapor. Rising air currents take the vapor up into the atmosphere, along with water from evapotranspiration, which is water transpired from plants and evaporated from the soil. The vapor rises into the air where cooler temperatures cause it to condense into clouds.
Air currents move clouds around the globe, cloud particles collide, grow, and fall out of the sky as precipitation. Some precipitation falls as snow and can accumulate as ice caps and glaciers, which can store frozen water for thousands of years. Snowpacks in warmer climates often thaw and melt when spring arrives, and the melted water flows overland as snowmelt. Most precipitation falls back into the oceans or onto land, where, due to gravity, the precipitation flows over the ground as surface runoff.
A portion of runoff enters rivers in valleys in the landscape, with streamflow moving water towards the oceans. Runoff, and ground-water seepage, accumulate and are stored as freshwater in lakes. Not all runoff flows into rivers, though. Much of it soaks into the ground as infiltration. Some water infiltrates deep into the ground and replenishes aquifers (saturated subsurface rock), which store huge amounts of freshwater for long periods of time. Some infiltration stays close to the land surface and can seep back into surface-water bodies (and the ocean) as groundwater discharge, and some ground water finds openings in the land surface and emerges as freshwater springs. Over time, though, all of this water keeps moving, some to reenter the ocean, where the water cycle begins again.
Evaporation is the process by which water changes from a liquid to a gas or vapor. Evaporation is the primary pathway that water moves from the liquid state back into the water cycle as atmospheric water vapor. Studies have shown that the oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers provide nearly 90 percent of the moisture in our atmosphere via evaporation, with the remaining 10 percent being contributed by plant transpiration.
Heat (energy) is necessary for evaporation to occur. Energy is used to break the bonds that hold water molecules together, which is why water easily evaporates at the boiling point (212° F, 100° C) but evaporates much more slowly at the freezing point. Net evaporation occurs when the rate of evaporation exceeds the rate of condensation. A state of saturation exists when these two process rates are equal, at which point, the relative humidity of the air is 100 percent. Condensation, the opposite of evaporation, occurs when saturated air is cooled below the dew point (the temperature to which air must be cooled at a constant pressure for it to become fully saturated with water), such as on the outside of a glass of ice water. In fact, the process of evaporation removes heat from the environment, which is why water evaporating from your skin cools you.
Evaporation from the oceans is the primary mechanism supporting the surface-to-atmosphere portion of the water cycle. After all, the large surface area of the oceans (over 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by the oceans) provides the opportunity for such large-scale evaporation to occur. On a global scale, the amount of water evaporating is about the same as the amount of water delivered to the Earth as precipitation. This does vary geographically, though. Evaporation is more prevalent over the oceans than precipitation, while over the land, precipitation routinely exceeds evaporation. Most of the water that evaporates from the oceans falls back into the oceans as precipitation. Only about 10 percent of the water evaporated from the oceans is transported over land and falls as precipitation. Once evaporated, a water molecule spends about 10 days in the air. The process of evaporation is so great that without precipitation runoff, and discharge from aquifers, oceans would become nearly empty.
Condensation is crucial to the water cycle because it is responsible for the formation of clouds. These clouds may produce precipitation, which is the primary route for water to return to the Earth's surface within the water cycle.
Even though clouds are absent in a crystal clear blue sky, water is still present in the form of water vapor and droplets which are too small to be seen. Depending on meteorological conditions, water molecules will combine (condense) and become the liquid form of water that we can see. Cloud droplets can vary greatly in size, from 10 microns (millionths of a meter) to 1 millimeter (mm), and even as large as 5 mm. This process occurs higher in the sky where the air is cooler and more condensation occurs relative to evaporation. As water droplets combine with each other, and grow in size, clouds not only develop, but precipitation may also occur. Precipitation is essentially water cloud in its liquid or solid form falling form the base of a cloud.
Precipitation is water released from clouds in the form of rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, or hail. It is the primary connection in the water cycle that provides for the delivery of atmospheric water to the Earth. Most precipitation falls as rain.
The clouds floating overhead contain water vapor and cloud droplets, which are small drops of condensed water. These droplets are way too small to fall as precipitation, but they are large enough to form visible clouds. Water is continually evaporating and condensing in the sky. If you look closely at a cloud you can see some parts disappearing (evaporating) while other parts are growing (condensation). Most of the condensed water in clouds does not fall as precipitation because their fall speed is not large enough to overcome updrafts which support the clouds. For precipitation to happen, first tiny water droplets must condense on even tinier dust, salt, or smoke particles, which act as a nucleus. Water droplets may grow as a result of additional condensation of water vapor when the particles collide. If enough collisions occur to produce a droplet with a fall velocity which exceeds the cloud updraft speed, then it will fall out of the cloud as precipitation. This is not a trivial task since millions of cloud droplets are required to produce a single raindrop.
- The Water Cycle by U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Updated: July 24, 2010.
- Morris, Henry M., The Genesis Record. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 1976. p.84.
- Summary of the Water Cycle U.S. Geological Survey. Updated April 14, 2010.