Groundwater: What is Groundwater?

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There is an immense amount of water in aquifers below the earth's surface. In fact, there is a over a thousand times more water in the ground than is in all the world's rivers and lakes. Here we introduce you to the basics about groundwater.

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What is groundwater?

Sketch of kids using a pump to withdraw groundwater from a well

Children using a pump to draw water
out of the ground.

These kids probably think there is some kind of magic happening here ... they pull down a lever and out of the ground below their feet comes clear, cool freshwater. They (and maybe you) may not realize that there is an immense amount of water in aquifers below the earth's surface. In fact, there is a over a thousand times more water in the ground than is in all the world's rivers and lakes.

Some water underlies the Earth's surface almost everywhere, beneath hills, mountains, plains, and deserts. It is not always accessible, or fresh enough for use without treatment, and it's sometimes difficult to locate or to measure and describe. This water may occur close to the land surface, as in a marsh, or it may lie many hundreds of feet below the surface, as in some arid areas of the western United States. Water at very shallow depths might be just a few hours old; at moderate depth, it may be 100 years old; and at great depth or after having flowed long distances from places of entry, the water may have been in the ground for several thousand years.

Groundwater is a part of the natural water cycle (check out our interactive water cycle diagram). Some part of the precipitation that lands on the ground surface infiltrates into the subsurface. The part that continues downward through the soil until it reaches rock material that is saturated is groundwater recharge. Water in the saturated groundwater system moves slowly and may eventually discharge into streams, lakes, and oceans.

Basic diagram of groundwater

Here is a simplified diagram showing how the ground is saturated below the water table (the solid blue area at the bottom). The ground above the water table (the pink area) may be wet to a certain degree, but it does not stay saturated. The dirt and rock in this unsaturated zone contain air and some water and support the vegetation on the Earth. The saturated zone below the water table has water that fills the tiny spaces (pores) between rock particles and the cracks (fractures) of the rocks.


Why is there groundwater?

A couple of important factors are responsible for the existence of groundwater:


Nothing surprising here - gravity pulls water and everything else toward the center of the Earth. That means that water on the surface will try to seep into the ground below it.


The rock below the Earth's surface is the bedrock. If all bedrock consisted of a dense material like solid granite, then even gravity would have a hard time pulling water downward. But Earth's bedrock consists of many types of rock, such as sandstone, granite, and limestone. Bedrocks have varying amounts of void spaces in them where groundwater accumulates. Bedrock can also become broken and fractured, creating spaces that can fill with water. And some bedrock, such as limestone, are dissolved by water -- which results in large cavities that fill with water.

Water seeping between rock layers

Here is groundwater seeping out from between rock layers and freezing in the winter temperatures. They were taken in a gorge at Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, NY.

Credit: Lynn Davis

In many places, if you looked at a vertical cross-section of the earth you would see that rock is laid down in layers, especially in areas of sedimentary rocks. Some layers have rocks that are more porous than others, and here water moves more freely (in a horizontal manner) through the earth. Sometimes water can be seen seeping out through exposed rock layers as seen in the photo.

Try as it might, gravity doesn't pull water all the way to the center of the Earth. Deep in the bedrock there are rock layers made of dense material, such as granite, or material that water has a hard time penetrating, such as clay. These layers may be underneath the porous rock layers and, thus, act as a confining layer to retard the vertical movement of water. Since it is more difficult for the water to go any deeper, it tends to pool in the porous layers and flow in a more horizontal direction across the aquifer toward an exposed surface-water body, like a river.

Visualize it this way: get two sponges and lay one on top of the other. Pour water (precipitation) on top and it will seep through the top sponge downward into the bottom sponge. If you stopped adding water, the top sponge would dry up and, as the water dripped out of the bottom sponge, it would dry up too. Now, put a piece of plastic wrap between the sponges, creating your "confining layer" (making the bottom sponge an impermeable rock layer that is too dense to allow water to flow through it). Now when you pour water on the top sponge, the water will seep downward until it hits the plastic wrap. The top sponge will become saturated, and when the water hits the plastic wrap it won't be able to seep into the second sponge. Instead, it will start flowing sideways and come out at the edges of the sponge (horizontal flow of groundwater). This happens in the earth all the time -- and it is an important part of the water cycle.


Water Science School Quiz


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




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