Hydrologic Cycle

hydrologic cycle
hydrologic cycle

The hydrologic cycle is a continuous system through which water circulates through vegetation, in the atmosphere, in the ground, on land, and in surface water such as rivers and oceans.

The sun and the force of gravity provide the energy to drive the cycle that provides clean, pure water at the earth’s surface. The total amount of water on earth is an estimated 1.36 billion cubic kilometers. Of this water, 97.2 percent is found in the earth’s oceans. The ice caps and glaciers contain 2.15 percent of the earth’s water.

The remainder, 0.65 percent, is divided among rivers (0.0001 percent), freshwater and saline lakes (0.017 percent), groundwater (0.61 percent), soil moisture (0.005 percent), the atmosphere (0.001 percent), and the biosphere and groundwater below 4,000 meters (0.0169 percent). While the percentages of water appear to be small for these water reservoirs, the total volume of water contained in each is immense.


Evaporation is the process whereby a liquid or solid is changed to a gas. Heat causes water molecules to become increasingly energized and to move more rapidly, weakening the chemical force that binds them together.

Eventually, as the temperature increases, water molecules move from the ocean’s surface into the overlying air. The rate of evaporation is influenced by radiation, temperature, humidity, and wind velocity.

Each year about 320,000 cubic kilometers of water evaporate from these oceans. It is estimated that an additional 60,000 cubic kilometers of water evaporate from rivers, streams, and lakes or are transpired by plants each year. A total of about 380,000 cubic kilometers of water is evapotranspired from the earth’s surface every year.

Condensation and Precipitation

Wind may transport the moisture-laden air long distances. The amount of water vapor the air can hold depends upon the temperature: The higher the temperature, the more vapor the air can hold.

As air is lifted and cooled at higher altitudes, the vapor in it condenses to form droplets of water. Condensation is aided by small dust and other particles in the atmosphere. As droplets collide and coalesce, raindrops begin to form, and precipitation begins.


Most precipitation events are the result of three causal factors: frontal precipitation, or the lifting of an air mass over a moving weather front; convectional precipitation related to the uneven heating of the earth’s surface, causing warm air masses to rise and cool; and orographic precipitation, resulting from a moving air mass being forced to move upward over a mountain range, cooling the air as it rises.

Each year, about 284,000 cubic kilometers of precipitation fall on the world’s oceans. This water has completed its cycle and is ready to begin a new cycle. Approximately 96,000 cubic kilometers of precipitation fall upon the land surface each year. This precipitation follows a number of different pathways in the hydrologic cycle.

It is estimated that 60,000 cubic kilometers evaporate from the surface of lakes or streams or transpire directly back into the atmosphere. The remainder, about 36,000 cubic kilometers, is intercepted by human structures or vegetation, infiltrates the soil or bedrock, or becomes surface runoff.


In cities, the amount of water intercepted by human structures may approach 100 percent. However, much urban water is collected in storm sewers or drains that lead to a surface drainage system or is spread over the land surface to infiltrate the subsoil.

Interception loss from vegetation depends upon interception capacity (the ability of the vegetation to collect and retain falling precipitation), wind speed (the higher the wind speed, the greater the rate of evaporation), and rainfall duration (the interception loss will decrease with the duration of rainfall, as the vegetative canopy will become saturated withwater after a period of time).

Broad-leaf forests may intercept 15 to 25 percent of annual precipitation, and a bluegrass lawn may intercept 15 to 20 percent of precipitation during a growing season.


Plants are continuously extracting soil moisture and passing it into the atmosphere through a process called transpiration. Moisture is drawn into the plant rootlet through osmotic pressure. The water moves through the plant to the leaves, where it is passed into the atmosphere through the leaf openings, or stomata.

The plant uses less than 1 percent of the soil moisture in its metabolism; thus, transpiration is responsible for most water vapor loss from the land in the hydrologic cycle. For example, an oak tree may transpire 151,200 liters per year.

Overland Flow and Infiltration

When the amount of rainfall is greater than the earth’s ability to absorb it, excess water begins to run off, a process termed overland flow. Overland flow begins only if the precipitation rate exceeds the infiltration capacity of the soil.

Infiltration occurs when water sinks into the soil surface or into fractures of rocks; the amount varies according to the characteristics of the soil or rock and the nature of the vegetative cover.

Sandy soils have higher infiltration rates than clay rock soils. Nonporous rock has an infiltration rate of zero, and all precipitation that reaches it becomes runoff. The presence of vegetation impedes surface runoff and increases the potential for infiltration to occur.

Water infiltrating the soil or bedrock encounters two forces: capillary force and gravitational force. A capillary force is the tendency of the water in the subsurface to adhere to the surface of soil or sediment particles. Capillary forces are responsible for the soil moisture a few inches below the land surface.

The water that continues to move downward under the force of gravity through the pores, cracks, and fissures of rocks or sediments will eventually enter a zone of water saturation. This source of underground water is called an aquifer—a rock or soil layer that is porous and permeable enough to hold and transport water. The top of this aquifer, or saturated zone, is the water table.

This water is moving slowly toward a point where it is discharged to a lake, spring, or stream. Groundwater that augments the flow of a stream is called base flow. Base flow enables streams to continue to flow during droughts and winter months. Groundwater may flow directly into the oceans along coastlines.

When the infiltration capacity of the earth’s surface is exceeded, overland flow begins. Broad, thin sheets of water a few millimeters thick are called sheet flow.

After flowing a few meters, the sheets break up into threads of current that flow in tiny channels called rills. The rills coalesce into gullies and, finally, into streams and rivers. Some evaporation losses occur from the stream surface, but much of the water is returned to the oceans, thus completing the hydrologic cycle.

Residence Time

Residence time refers to how long a molecule of water will remain in various components of the hydrologic cycle. The average length of time that a water molecule stays in the atmosphere is about one week. Two weeks is the average residence time for a water molecule in a river, and ten years in a lake.

It would take four thousand years for all the water molecules in the oceans to be recycled. Groundwater may require anywhere from a few weeks to thousands of years to move through the cycle. This time period suggests that every water molecule has been recycled millions of times.

Methods of Study

Several techniques are used to gather data on water in the hydrologic cycle. These data help scientists determine the water budget for different geographic areas. Together, these data enable scientists to estimate the total water budget of the earth’s hydrologic cycle.

Scientists have developed a vast array of mathematical equations and instruments to collect data on the hydrologic cycle. Variations in temperature, precipitation, evapotranspiration, solar radiation, vegetative cover, soil and bedrock type, and other factorsmust be evaluated to understand the local or global hydrologic cycle.

Precipitation is an extremely variable phenomenon. The United States has some thirteen thousand precipitation stations equipped with rain gauges, placed strategically to compensate for wind and splash losses.

Precipitation falling on a given area is determined using a rain-gauge network of uniform density to determine the arithmetic mean for rainfall in the area. The amount of water in a snow pack is estimated by snow surveys. The depth and water content of the snow pack are measured and the extent of the snow cover mapped using satellite photography.

The amount of precipitation lost by interception can be measured and evaluated. Most often, interception is determined by measuring the amount above the vegetative canopy and at the earth’s surface. The difference is what is lost to interception.

The volume of water flowing by a given point at a given time in an open stream channel is called discharge. Discharge is determined by measuring the velocity of water in the stream channel, using a current meter.

The cross-sectional area of the stream channel is determined at a specific point and multiplied by the stream velocity. Automated stream-gauging stations are located on most streams to supply data for various hydrologic investigations.

The U.S. National Weather Service maintains about five hundred stations using metal pans, mimicking reservoirs, to measure free-water evaporation. Water depths of 17 to 20 centimeters are maintained in the pans. Errors may result from splashing by raindrops or birds.

Because the pans will heat and cool more rapidly than will a natural reservoir, a pan coefficient is employed to compensate for this phenomenon. The wind velocity is also determined. A lake evaporation nomograph determines daily lake evaporation. The mean daily temperature, wind velocity, solar radiation, and mean daily dew point are all used in the calculation.

The amount of evapotranspiration can be measured using a lysimeter, a large container holding soil and living plants. The lysimeter is set outside, and the initial soil moisture is determined. All precipitation or irrigation is measured accurately. Changes in the soil moisture storage determine the amount of evapotranspiration.