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SJ Marshall, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada

2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Introduction 1
The Global Water Cycle 1
Surface Water and Groundwater 1
Water Chemistry and Water Pollution 2
Aquatic Biology 3
Water Resources 3
Water is essential to life and is the defining characteristic of Earth, the blue planet. Hydrology is the study of the global water cycle
and the physical, chemical, and biological processes involved in the different reservoirs and fluxes of water within this cycle. This
includes water vapor, liquid water, snow, and ice; indeed, one of the things that makes our planet unique is the fact that water can
be found in all three phases at Earth surface temperatures and pressures. It is the only common substance for which this is true.
In general, hydrologists focus on terrestrial water, while recognizing that the global hydrological cycle includes exchanges of
water between the land surface, ocean, atmosphere, and subsurface. Water in the oceans and atmosphere is mainly studied by
oceanographers and meteorologists, however, and these topics are discussed in the Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences
sections of the Earth Systems and Environmental Science module. Many hydrologists work at the interface between land surface
water and the atmosphere, studying precipitation and evapotranspiration processes in the field of hydrometeorology. These topics
are discussed in the module on the Global Water Cycle. Other primary subject areas within the Hydrology section include Surface
Water, Groundwater, Aquatic Biology, Water Chemistry, Water Pollution, and Water Resources. This overview introduces each of
these realms of hydrological science.
The Global Water Cycle
The hydrological cycle describes the perpetual flux and exchange of water between different global reservoirs: the oceans,
atmosphere, land surface, soils, groundwater systems, and the solid Earth (Figure 1). Most of the worlds water approximately
96.3% is in the worlds oceans, where water molecules have an average residence time of about 3300 years. Glaciers and ice sheets
lock up more than half of the remaining water (Table 1), with 90% of this stored in the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Most of what remains
lies below the surface, in groundwater aquifers, where vast reserves of water are saline or difficult to access.
Freshwater in circulation, on which ecosystems and society so critically depend, therefore makes up only a tiny fraction of
Earths total water supply. Surface water constitutes only 0.02% of the global inventory, distributed between rivers, lakes, wetlands,
soils, and the biosphere. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates the global, accessible freshwater supply to
be about 200000 km
. This equates to about 29 million liters of water for each person on the planet. Global water supplies are
bountiful, though not easily accessed or equitably distributed.
Fluxes of water between reservoirs are indicated in Figure 2 and are discussed in the Global Water Cycle section of the ESES
module. There are high rates of turnover in the atmosphere, biosphere, soils, and rivers; the average lifetime of a water molecule in
the atmosphere is 9.2 days, and considerably less than this in the worlds rain belts. Once on the land surface, water can be stored for
extended periods in soils, lakes, groundwater aquifers, vegetation, and seasonal snowpacks. On an annual basis, however, discharge
from the worlds rivers is in near-equilibrium with global precipitation, returning what the ocean gives up through evaporation.
Surface Water and Groundwater
Physical hydrologists study the processes of water movement and storage on and beneath the land, exchanges between different
hydrological reservoirs, and interactions between water and other natural and human systems (e.g., in ecology, agriculture, or civil
waterworks). While surface water makes up a small fraction of the global water reservoir, a large number of hydrologists work in
this area. Subject areas within the Surface Water section of the module include consideration of soil water, wetlands, the cryosphere,
rivers, and lakes.
Large reserves of water are stored and routed through subterranean systems, with as much as one third of the worlds population
drawing from groundwater for essential municipal and household use. This includes about one third of the United States and 85%
of India, amongst other countries highly reliant on groundwater supplies. The Groundwater section of the module examines the
Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-409548-9.05356-2 1
essential processes involved in subsurface water flow, the distribution and health of the worlds groundwater reserves, groundwater
chemistry, and geological considerations of groundwater science, also known as hydrogeology.
Water Chemistry and Water Pollution
While physical hydrologists focus on water quantity and supply, water quality is of fundamental concern for ecological and human
health. Enormous resources are committed to water monitoring, purification, desalination, and wastewater treatment, while access
to clean water and the prevalence of waterborne diseases are among the most serious issues that continue to face the developing
world. Subject areas in the Water Chemistry section of the module include water quality considerations, as well as broader
considerations of river, lake, and groundwater chemistry. This includes basic aspects of water chemistry, nutrient cycling in
lakes, aqueous organic chemistry, and environmental stresses on water chemistry, such as contaminants and acid rain.
Soil water
Surface water
Global water reserves
Surface water
Figure 1 The global water inventory.
Table 1 The global water inventory (km
Reservoir Size (km
) World water (%) Freshwater (%)
All Surface
1285400000 96.30
Ice Sheets
25470000 1.91
270000 0.02
22000 0.002
23400000 1.75
Fresh 10530000 0.79 98.85
Lakes 176400 0.01
Fresh 91000 0.007 0.85 74.5
Rivers 2120 0.0002 0.02 1.7
Soil water 16500 0.001 0.15 13.5
Wetlands 11470 0.001 0.11 9.4
Biosphere 1120 0.0001 0.01 0.9
12700 0.001
Surface freshwater 122210 0.01 100.0
Total freshwater 10652210 0.80 100.00
Global total 1334782310 100.00
Charette and Smith (2010), water only (salts removed, assuming a salinity of 3.5%).
Marshall (2011); glacier density of 900 kg m
; Antarctic Peninsula classified as glaciers.
Median of Zhang et al. (1999) estimate of 1100037000 km
of ice (density 917 kg m
Global estimates vary, making this the most uncertain term in the global water inventory.
Trenberth and Smith (2005).
Reproduced from Shiklomanov, I. (1993). World fresh water resources. In: Gleick, P.H. (eds.) Water in crisis: A guide to the worlds fresh water resources. New York: Oxford University
Press, with updates from other sources as indicated.
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Aquatic Biology
Aquatic ecosystems support a wide range of organisms, including microorganisms, invertebrates, insects, plants, and fish. Some
hydrologists work in understanding the trophic systems within aquatic ecosystems and their health as a function of environmental
conditions such as water temperature and turbidity. Aquatic biodiversity is a major concern in water conservation and restoration
projects, as well as water resource management. Concern regarding the biological health of wetlands, rivers, and lakes has led to the
idea of ecosystem services as a means to quantify or assess the value provided to society by different natural environments,
including aquatic environments. While this lens seems biased to the larger species that are of commercial value (i.e. fish), it is
understood that healthy waters require the full spectrum of organisms as part of an aquatic ecosystem. The section on aquatic
biology provides considerable detail on many of these species.
Water Resources
Water resource management includes consideration of all of the above disciplines of hydrology. Water supplies are allocated and
diverted to a range of agricultural, municipal, industrial, hydroelectrical, and ecological needs. Some of these water uses are
consumptive, removing water from the system (e.g., crop irrigation). Other types of water use return the water to a river, lake, or to
the ground, but the water often requires treatment to restore it to a natural state; sometimes this is not possible (e.g., industrial
tailings ponds).
The balancing act involved in water management includes a broad range of stakeholders and includes water policy and legal
experts. Hydrologists have essential input to these complex and sometimes confrontational deliberations and negotiations. They
also play a central role in applied hydrology engineering of major waterworks to manage water. Water distribution systems have
been a hallmark of civilization since Babylon, and the modern stamp on this includes major hydroelectric dams and reservoirs,
urban waterworks, and water treatment facilities.
These and other tools help governments to manage water resources in a way that serves societal and ecological needs. However,
water resource management is one of the worlds greatest challenges due to competition for limited resources, regional disparities
in water supply and affluence, mounting global water demand, aquifer depletion, and pollution- and climate-change induced
water stress. Integrated sustainable water resource management is an area requiring innovation, progress, and international
cooperation in the coming decades.
Global water cycle
Sublimation Snow/ice melt
Percolation Plant uptake
Groundwater discharge
Figure 2 The global water cycle, with fluxes in 10
after the U.S. University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, https://spark.ucar.edu/
longcontent/water-cycle, with updates from Durack et al. (2012). Graphic adapted from NOAA National Weather Service, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/
Hydrology 3
Further Reading
Charette MA and Smith WHF (2010) The volume of Earths ocean. Oceanography 23(2): 112114.
Durack PJ, Wijffels SE, and Matear RJ (2012) Ocean salinities reveal strong global water cycle intensification during 1950 to 2000. Science 336: 455458.
Margat J (2008) Les eaux souterraines dans le monde. Paris: UNESCO BGRM/Editions.
Marshall SJ (2011) The cryosphere. Princeton primers in climate science. N.J.: Princeton University Press, 282 pp.
Shiklomanov I (1993) World fresh water resources. In: Gleick PH (ed.) Water in crisis: A guide to the worlds fresh water resources. New York: Oxford University Press.
Trenberth KE and Smith L (2005) The mass of the atmosphere: A constraint on global analyses. Journal of Climate 18: 864875.
Yu L (2007) Global variations in oceanic evaporation (19582005): The role of the changing wind speed. Journal of Climate 20: 53765390.
Zhang T, et al. (1999) Statistics and characteristics of permafrost and ground-ice distribution in the northern hemisphere. Polar Geography 23(2): 132154.
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