Groundwater Storage and the Water Cycle

Science Center Objects

The ground stores huge amounts of water and it exists to some degree no matter where on Earth you are. Lucky for people, in many places the water exists in quantities and at depths that wells can be drilled into the water-bearing aquifers and withdrawn to server the many needs people have.

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

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Basic diagram of groundwater

Basic visualization of groundwater

There's a whole lot of water beneath your feet

Large amounts of water are stored in the ground. The water is still moving, possibly very slowly, and it is still part of the water cycle. Most of the water in the ground comes from precipitation that infiltrates downward from the land surface. The upper layer of the soil is the unsaturated zone, where water is present in varying amounts that change over time, but does not saturate the soil. Below this layer is the saturated zone, where all of the pores, cracks, and spaces between rock particles are saturated with water. The term groundwater is used to describe this area. Another term for groundwater is "aquifer," although this term is usually used to describe water-bearing formations capable of yielding enough water to supply peoples' uses. Aquifers are a huge storehouse of Earth's water and people all over the world depend on groundwater in their daily lives.

The top of the surface where groundwater occurs is called the water table. In the diagram, you can see how the ground below the water table is saturated with water (the saturated zone). Aquifers are replenished by the seepage of precipitation that falls on the land, but there are many geologic, meteorologic, topographic, and human factors that determine the extent and rate to which aquifers are refilled with water. Rocks have different porosity and permeability characteristics, which means that water does not move around the same way in all rocks. Thus, the characteristics of groundwater recharge vary all over the world.


To find water underground, look under the (water) table

The Water Table: A hole dug at the beach showing the "water table" level.

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS

I hope you appreciate my spending an hour in the blazing sun to dig this hole at the beach. It is a great way to illustrate the concept of how at a certain depth the ground, if it is permeable enough to allow water to move through it, is saturated with water. The top of the pool of water in this hole is the water table. The breaking waves of the ocean are just to the right of this hole, and the water level in the hole is the same as the level of the ocean. Of course, the water level here changes by the minute due to the movement of the tides, and as the tide goes up and down, the water level in the hole moves, too. Just as with this hole, the level of the water table is affected by other environmental conditions.

In a way, this hole is like a dug well used to access groundwater, probably saline in this case. But, if this was freshwater, people could grab a bucket an supply themselves with the water they need to live their daily lives. You know that at the beach if you took a bucket and tried to empty this hole, it would refill immediately because the sand is so permeable that water flows easily through it, meaning our "well" is very "high-yielding" (too bad the water is saline). To access freshwater, people have to drill wells deep enough to tap into an aquifer. The well might have to be dozens or thousands of feet deep. But the concept is the same as our well at the beach—access the water in the saturated zone where the voids in the rock are full of water.


Pumping can affect the level of the water table

In an aquifer, the soil and rock is saturated with water. If the aquifer is shallow enough and permeable enough to allow water to move through it at a rapid-enough rate, then people can drill wells into it and withdraw water. The level of the water table can naturally change over time due to changes in weather cycles and precipitation patterns, streamflow and geologic changes, and even human-induced changes, such as the increase in impervious surfaces, such as roads and paved areas, on the landscape.

Diagram showing how well pumping can draw down the local water table.

The pumping of wells can have a great deal of influence on water levels below ground, especially in the vicinity of the well, as this diagram shows. Depending on geologic and hydrologic conditions of the aquifer, the impact on the level of the water table can be short-lived or last for decades, and the water level can fall a small amount or many hundreds of feet. Excessive pumping can lower the water table so much that the wells no longer supply water—they can "go dry."


Groundwater and global water distribution

As these charts show, even though the amount of water locked up in groundwater is a small percentage of all of Earth's water, it represents a large percentage of total freshwater on Earth. The pie chart shows that about 1.7 percent of all of Earth's water is groundwater and about 30.1 percent of freshwater on Earth occurs as groundwater. As the bar chart shows, about 5,614,000 cubic miles (mi3), or 23,400,000 cubic kilometers (km3), of groundwater exist on Earth. About 54 percent is saline, with the remaining 2,526,000 mi3 (10,530,000 km3) , about 46 percent, being freshwater.

Water in aquifers below the oceans is generally saline, while the water below the land surfaces (where freshwater, which fell as precipitation, infiltrates into the ground) is generally freshwater. There is a stable transition zone that separates saline water and freshwater below ground. It is fortunate for us that the relatively shallow aquifers that people tap with wells contain freshwater, since if we tried to irrigate corn fields with saline water I suspect the stalks would refuse to grow.

The distribution of water on, in, and above the Earth

One estimate of global water distribution
Water source Water volume,
in cubic miles
Water volume,
in cubic kilometers
Percent of total water Percent of total freshwater
Fresh groundwater 2,526,000 10,530,000 0.8% 30.1%
Groundwater 5,614,000 23,400,000 1.7% --
Total global water 332,500,000 1,386,000,000 -- --

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.


Water Science School Quiz


Do you think you know about groundwater?
Take our Groundwater true/false quiz, part of our Activity Center.





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How much of Earth's water is stored as groundwater?