The Atmosphere and the Water Cycle

Science Center Objects

The atmosphere is the superhighway in the sky that moves water everywhere over the Earth. Water at the Earth's surface evaporates into water vapor which rises up into the sky to become part of a cloud which will float off with the winds, eventually releasing water back to Earth as precipitation.

Note: This section of the Water Science School discusses the Earth's "natural" water cycle without human interference.

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Water cycle components  »  Atmosphere  ·  Condensation  ·  Evaporation  ·  Evapotranspiration  ·  Freshwater lakes and rivers  ·  Groundwater flow  ·  Groundwater storage  ·  Ice and snow  ·  Infiltration  ·  Oceans  ·  Precipitation  ·  Snowmelt  ·  Springs  ·  Streamflow  ·  Sublimation  ·  Surface runoff

A cloud whose formation is influenced by winds flowing over mountains.

A lenticular cloud over the Tararua Range mountains, North Island, New Zealand. What's happening above those mountains? Several clouds are stacked up into one striking lenticular cloud.

Credit: Chris Picking, Starry Night Skies Photography

The atmosphere is full of water

The water cycle is all about storing water and moving water on, in, and above the Earth. Although the atmosphere may not be a great storehouse of water, it is the superhighway used to move water around the globe. Evaporation and transpiration change liquid water into vapor, which ascends into the atmosphere due to rising air currents. Cooler temperatures aloft allow the vapor to condense into clouds and strong winds move the clouds around the world until the water falls as precipitation to replenish the earthbound parts of the water cycle. About 90 percent of water in the atmosphere is produced by evaporation from water bodies, while the other 10 percent comes from transpiration from plants.

There is always water in the atmosphere. Clouds are, of course, the most visible manifestation of atmospheric water, but even clear air contains water — water in particles that are too small to be seen. One estimate of the volume of water in the atmosphere at any one time is about 3,100 cubic miles (mi3) or 12,900 cubic kilometers (km3). That may sound like a lot, but it is only about 0.001 percent of the total Earth's water volume of about 332,500,000 mi3 (1,385,000,000 km3), as shown in the table below. If all of the water in the atmosphere rained down at once, it would only cover the globe to a depth of 2.5 centimeters, about 1 inch.


How much does a cloud weigh?

Made up picture of a cloud sitting on a weight scale.

Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Do you think clouds have any weight? How can they, if they are floating in the air like a balloon filled with helium? If you tie a helium balloon to a kitchen scale it won't register any weight, so why should a cloud? To answer this question, let me ask if you think air has any weight—that is really the important question. If you know what air pressure and a barometer are, then you know that air does have weight. At sea level, the weight (pressure) of air is about 14 ½ pounds per square inch (1 kilogram per square centimeter).

Since air has weight it must also have density, which is the weight for a chosen volume, such as a cubic inch or cubic meter. If clouds are made up of particles, then they must have weight and density. The key to why clouds float is that the density of the same volume of cloud material is less than the density of the same amount of dry air. Just as oil floats on water because it is less dense, clouds float on air because the moist air in clouds is less dense than dry air.

We still need to answer the question of how much a cloud weighs. To confuse things more, the weight depends on how you define it:

  • The weight of the water droplets in the cloud
  • The weight of the water droplets plus the weight of the air (mostly above the cloud, pressing down)

We're only going to look at the weight of the actual cloud particles. One estimate of cumulus cloud density is given at, as a density of about 0.5 gram per cubic meter. A 1 km3 cloud contains 1 billion cubic meters.

Doing the math: 1,000,000,000 x 0.5 = 500,000,000 grams of water droplets in our cloud. That is about 500,000 kilograms or 1.1 million pounds (about 551 tons). But, that "heavy" cloud is floating over your head because the air below it is even heavier— the lesser density of the cloud allows it to float on the dryer and more-dense air.


Global distribution of atmospheric water


One estimate of global water distribution

Water source Water volume, in cubic miles Water volume, in cubic kilometers Percent of total freshwater Percent of total water
Atmosphere 3,094 12,900 0.04% 0.001%
Total global fresh water 8,404,000 35,030,000 100% 2.5%
Total global water 332,500,000 1,386,000,000 -- 100%

Source: Gleick, P. H., 1996: Water resources. In Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather, ed. by S. H. Schneider, Oxford University Press, New York, vol. 2, pp. 817-823.




The little cloud that could—but why?
Why is this tiny cloud the only one in the sky?





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