A Review of the Driving Force Behind the Water Cycle

The water cycle has been recycling the Earth’s water for over four billion years. The driving force behind the water cycle are the oceans, but fresh rainwater and melting snow from mountaintops can also evaporate into the atmosphere to condense into clouds and rain again. Learn more about the driving force of the water cycle in our guide below.

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Natasha McLachlan is a writer who currently lives in Southern California. She is an alumna of California College of the Arts, where she obtained her B.A. in Writing and Literature. Her current work revolves around insurance guides and informational articles. She truly enjoys helping others learn more about everyday, practical matters through her work.

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance for 10 years. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Former Licensed Agent

UPDATED: Nov 21, 2020

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When you go to the kitchen and get yourself a glass of water, that same water was used to hydrate dinosaurs and wooly mammoths long ago! The water cycle has been recycling earth’s water for over 4 billion years.

You never really think about how dependent we are on water until you think of everything we would not be able to do in a day without it. We need water to stay hydrated, to cook, to bathe, to brush our teeth, to flush the toilet, and so much more. Water truly is the driving force in our lives, so it is important to know what drives it as well.

About the Water Cycle

A majority of the water on earth is in our oceans, but water can also be the snow on the top of a mountain range or the ice caps in the middle of Antarctica. Water can take many different forms, including liquid, gas, and solid; and it moves in an endless cycle through lakes, rivers, oceans, atmosphere and land.

This is what we have come to know as the water cycle. The water cycle has five different stages including evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and collection. Let’s take a look at each stage so you can get a better understanding of just how hard the earth works for you.

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Evaporation

Evaporation is the very first stage of the water cycle. This is where it all begins. Evaporation takes place when the sun warms the water in streams, ponds, or lakes enough to turn it into a vapor we call steam. This vapor then enters into the air and is no longer visible.

If you have ever spilled a small amount of water on your kitchen table and you go back a few hours later, you can no longer see where the water was. It’s like it was never there in the first place. This is an easier way to explain evaporation. The water is no longer visible because it, of course, evaporated.

It is important to keep in mind that some liquids evaporate more quickly than others, but there are factors that contribute to just how quickly a liquid will evaporate. If the air is already saturated with many different substances, it will cause the evaporation process to be slower. When there is high humidity, there is no room for a liquid to evaporate. Air pressure and temperature will also contribute to the speed of evaporation.

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Transpiration

Transpiration is what happens when leaves sweat or lose water. Transpiration allows evaporation to take a turn in recovering water vapors into the air. You cannot go outside and see this process take place, however, rest assured that the water being lost from a leaf is re-entering the air. The leaf actually transpires more water than it weighs. In fact, an oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons of water in one year!

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Condensation

If you have ever taken a cold glass of water outside on a hot summer day, you have surely noticed the liquid beading on the outside of the glass. Most people say their glass is sweating, but this is actually condensation taking place right before your eyes.

Condensation occurs when water vapor in the air gets cold and changes into liquid again. Condensation is the opposite of evaporation and is vital to the formation of clouds, since clouds form when water vapors condense around particles. Fog is another example. It is like small clouds that have formed close to the ground. As clouds in the sky get bigger, they will fill with water, and soon after, precipitation will take place.

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Precipitation

Precipitation is easy to understand because it is something that we can see. Rain, snow, sleet, and hail are all different forms of precipitation and they occur when the clouds that formed during condensation have become so full that they can no longer contain the water. The water falls back to Earth and recharges it once again so that the water cycle can continue. If it did not, the planet we know would be nothing more than desert.

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  • Windows to the Universe: Rain

Sublimation

Sublimation takes place when ice or snow turns into vapor without melting into water first. In some climates, this is how a mass of snow will disappear. Sublimation takes place more frequently when there is low relative humidity or dry winds. It is also more common at high altitudes where there is less air pressure. Strong sunlight is needed for sublimation to occur.

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Collection

Collection takes place when the water falls back to the earth and collects in the seas, rivers or lakes. The water literally collects on the Earth, waiting to be reabsorbed. If it is not absorbed into these sources, it may be used to water plants or simply pool as groundwater until it finally makes its way back to a bigger water source, starting the water process all over again.

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Lesson Plans for Teachers

Would you like to teach your students or children more about the water cycle and what keeps it moving and producing clean water for us? Look into the following lesson plans and resources:

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Additional Resources

Are you still looking for more information? To learn more about the water cycle and how it works you can watch Science 360’s video on the topic, Sustainability: The water cycle. The USDA also has an informative article on How forests affect our drinking water.

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