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What is a Hydrologic Cycle?

By Matthew F.
Updated May 21, 2024
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The Earth as we know it is made up of primarily water, considered the most precious of our natural resources. Snow storms, rain showers and thunderstorms play just a small part of what is know as the hydrologic cycle, or water cycle. The hydrologic cycle is made up of water in all three of its forms: solid, liquid and gas. The hydrosphere is the area which contains all the water in the atmosphere. Every cycle occurs in five different stages.

The hydrologic cycle starts in the evaporation stage. All water on the ground — including lakes, rivers and oceans — is at the mercy of the sun. Sunlight aids in the process to raise the water temperature and eventually change it from a liquid to a gas. As a gas, the water vapor rises into the atmosphere and starts to condense. During the condensation stage, the water vapor condenses on particles in the atmosphere and forms clouds. A smaller version of this process is dew on the grass in the morning.

From condensation to precipitation, the water can come in a variety of forms. Even though this is known as the precipitation stage, hail is one of the forms which can fall. The other likely scenarios are snowfall and rain showers. Once clouds form, upper atmosphere winds spreads the clouds across the entire globe until the clouds cannot hold all the moisture. Weather systems over lakes in the winter can actually stall out and lead to a longer more intense system as it sits over a larger body of water which speeds up the hydrologic cycle.

The infiltration and runoff stages are the final two parts of the hydrologic cycle. Both stages occur simultaneously. When the snow and rain hit the ground, it begins to seep into the ground during the infiltration process. During a flood, the ground has already absorbed the amount of water it can hold and begins to accumulate on the ground. The runoff stage goes from the ground, either above or below ground and flows into rivers and streams. The streams and rivers flow back into lakes and oceans which lead back to the start of the process, evaporation.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the hydrologic cycle and why is it important?

The hydrologic cycle, also known as the water cycle, is the continuous movement of water on, above, and below the surface of the Earth. It's crucial for sustaining life, as it distributes fresh water to ecosystems, regulates climate by transporting heat, and supports agriculture and industry. Without it, the Earth's water would become stagnant and unusable.

What are the main stages of the hydrologic cycle?

The hydrologic cycle consists of several key stages: evaporation (water turning into vapor), transpiration (water released by plants), condensation (vapor forming clouds), precipitation (rain or snow falling to the ground), infiltration (water soaking into the soil), and runoff (water moving over land to bodies of water). These stages are interconnected and cyclical.

How does the hydrologic cycle affect weather and climate?

The hydrologic cycle has a significant impact on both weather and climate. For instance, the evaporation and condensation of water vapor are central to cloud formation and precipitation, which are fundamental aspects of weather patterns. Moreover, the distribution and amount of water vapor in the atmosphere influence climate by affecting temperature and humidity levels.

Can human activities influence the hydrologic cycle?

Yes, human activities can profoundly affect the hydrologic cycle. Urbanization alters natural runoff patterns and increases surface runoff, while deforestation reduces transpiration and can alter regional rainfall. Additionally, climate change, driven by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, is altering precipitation patterns and intensifying the water cycle, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

What role do oceans play in the hydrologic cycle?

Oceans are integral to the hydrologic cycle, serving as the primary source for evaporation. They cover about 71% of the Earth's surface and contain 97% of its water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Oceans absorb heat from the sun, which leads to evaporation, and they also store vast amounts of heat, helping to regulate the global climate.

How does the hydrologic cycle support biodiversity?

The hydrologic cycle is essential for maintaining biodiversity. It provides habitats for aquatic life through bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and oceans. Terrestrial ecosystems also rely on regular precipitation for survival. The cycle's processes support plant growth, which in turn provides food and habitat for a wide range of animal species, thus sustaining diverse ecosystems.

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Discussion Comments

By anon84731 — On May 17, 2010

This is a great summary of what technically happens in the water cycle, but now man is essentially managing the water cycle in many parts of the world, and it's creating big problems because the management is not always holistic.

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