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The Water Cycle (PNG)

Detailed Description

This diagram, released in 2022, depicts the global water cycle. It shows how human water use affects where water is stored, how it moves, and how clean it is. This diagram is available in English and Spanish. For each language, the diagram is available as an image (PNG), as a 26x38-inch poster (PDF), as a 8.5x11-inch handout (PDF), and as a 8.5x11-inch fill-in-the-blank worksheet (PDF).  A comprehensive text description of the diagram is also available. Explore the diagram in more detail on a zoomable website.

Visit the USGS Water Science School for definitions and more information about the water cycle. 

The diagram was created by the USGS VizLab, in collaboration with the USGS Water Resources Mission Area Web Communications Branch, for the USGS Water Science School. 


Diagram text:

The water cycle describes where water is on Earth and how it moves. Water is stored in the atmosphere, on the land surface, and below the ground. It can be a liquid, a solid, or a gas. Liquid water can be fresh, saline (salty), or a mix (brackish). Water moves between the places it is stored. Water moves at large scales and at very small scales. Water moves naturally and because of human actions. Human water use affects where water is stored, how it moves, and how clean it is. 

Pools store water. 96% of all water is stored in oceans and is saline. On land, saline water is stored in saline lakes. Fresh water is stored in liquid form in freshwater lakes, artificial reservoirs, rivers, and wetlands. Water is stored in solid, frozen form in ice sheets and glaciers, and in snowpack at high elevations or near the Earth’s poles. Water vapor is a gas and is stored as atmospheric moisture over the ocean and land. In the soil, frozen water is stored as permafrost and liquid water is stored as soil moisture. Deeper below ground, liquid water is stored as groundwater in aquifers, within cracks and pores in the rock.   

Fluxes move water between pools. As it moves, water can change form between liquid, solid, and gas. Circulation mixes water in the oceans and transports water vapor in the atmosphere. Water moves between the atmosphere and the surface through evaporation, evapotranspiration, and precipitation. Water moves across the surface through snowmelt, runoff, and streamflow. Water moves into the ground through infiltration and groundwater recharge. Underground, groundwater flows within aquifers. It can return to the surface through natural groundwater discharge into rivers, the ocean, and from springs

We alter the water cycle. We redirect rivers. We build dams to store water. We drain water from wetlands for development. We use water from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and groundwater aquifers. We use that water to supply our homes and communities. We use it for agricultural irrigation and grazing livestock. We use it in industrial activities like thermoelectric power generation, mining, and aquaculture. The amount of water that is available depends on how much water is in each pool (water quantity). It also depends on when and how fast water moves (water timing), how much water we use (water use), and how clean the water is (water quality). 

We affect water quality. In agricultural and urban areas, irrigation and precipitation wash fertilizers and pesticides into rivers and groundwater. Power plants and factories return heated and contaminated water to rivers. Runoff carries chemicals, sediment, and sewage into rivers and lakes. Downstream from these sources, contaminated water can cause harmful algal blooms, spread diseases, and harm habitats. Climate change is affecting the water cycle. It is affecting water quality, quantity, timing, and use. It is causing ocean acidification, sea level rise, and more extreme weather. By understanding these impacts, we can work toward using water sustainably. 


Public Domain.

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