Rain and Precipitation

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Rain and snow are key elements in the Earth's water cycle, which is vital to all life on Earth. Rainfall is the main way that the water in the skies comes down to Earth, where it fills our lakes and rivers, recharges the underground aquifers, and provides drinks to plants and animals.

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Rain and Precipitation

A rainstorm in the Colorado mountains

A localized heavy summer rainstorm in Colorado

Here is a classic summer rainstorm; they are often small but intense. Other rain events are more "frontal" in nature, with large nimbostratus types of clouds bringing precipitation over a large area. 

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS

Fortunately for everyone, water is a renewable resource that moves in a cycle with neither beginning nor end (but, you can put in your vote as to where you think it begins). Water vapor (evaporated from oceans, lakes, forests, fields, animals, and plants) condenses and returns to Earth as precipitation, once again replenishing reservoirs, lakes, rivers, underground aquifers, and other sources of water and providing the moisture required by plants and animals... an endless water cycle.

The amount of precipitation that falls around the world may range from less than 0.1 inch per year in some deserts to more than 900 inches per year in the tropics. One of the driest spots on Earth is Iquique, Chile, where no rain fell for 14 years. The world's wettest spot, Mawsynram, in Northeastern India, experienced a mean of 494 inches of rain a year during the years 1989-2010, replacing the previous placeholder, Cherrapunji, also in Northeastern India, where a mean of 471 inches fell during the same period.

In case you're wondering, the wettest place in the United States, as shown by data collected by the Western Regional Climate Center, is on Mt. Waialeale, Hawaii, where an average of 373 inches of rain has fallen annually between the years 1949 and 2008. Mt. Waialeale even experienced more than 642 inches of rain from July 1947 to July 1948! If you think that's something, Cherrapunji holds the single year record of 905 inches measured in 1861!

By contrast, the conterminous (the 48 "lower" states) United States receives enough precipitation during an average year to cover the States to a depth of about 30 inches. This is equivalent to about 1,430 cubic miles of water each year. What happens to the water after it reaches the ground depends upon many factors such as the rate of rainfall, topography, soil condition, density of vegetation, temperature, and the extent of urbanization.

Wide-spread urban flooding in Georgia, Sept. 2009

Wide spread flooding in Lithia Springs, Georgia just west of downtown Atlanta, after epic rainfall, 22 Sept. 2009. Impervious surfaces and urban buildup causes rainfall to runoff much quicker, and with greater flooding consequences, during heavy rains.

Credit: NASA

For example, the direct runoff in a highly urbanized area is relatively great, not only because of the density of roofs and impermeable pavements permits less rain to infiltrate the ground, but also because storm-sewer systems carry more water directly to the streams and lakes. In a more natural or undeveloped area, the direct runoff would be considerably less.

In the United States, an average of some 70 percent of the annual precipitation returns to the atmosphere by evaporation from land and water surfaces and by transpiration from vegetation. The remaining 30 percent eventually reaches a stream, lake, or ocean, partly by overland runoff during and immediately after rain, and partly by a much slower route by moving though the ground.

Much of the rain that enters the ground filters down into subsurface water-bearing rocks (aquifers) and eventually reaches lakes, streams, and rivers where these surface-water bodies intercept the aquifers. The portion of the precipitation that reaches the streams produces an average annual streamflow in the United States of approximately 1,200 billion gallons a day. By comparison, the Nations's homes, farms, and factories withdraw and use about 355 billion gallons a day (2010).


Amount of water received when an inch of rain occurs

Have you ever wondered how much water falls onto your yard during a rainstorm? Using a 1-inch rainstorm as an example, the table below gives example of how much water falls during a storm for various land areas.


Area Area (square miles) Area (square kilometers) Amount of water (gallons) Amount of water (liters)
A roof (40 x 70 feet) 0.0001 0.000257 1,743 6,601
1 acre (1 square mile = 640 acres) 0.00156 0.004 27,154 102,789
1 square mile 1 2.6 17,380,000 65,780,000
Atlanta, Georgia 132.4 342.9 2,293,000,000 8,680,000,000
United States 3,537,438 9,161,922 61,474,000,000,000 232,700,000,000,000


Consider for a moment how much rainwater some cities may receive during a year. For example, Atlanta, Ga. averages about 45 inches of precipitation per year; multiplying this by the 2.293 billion gallons shown in the table as the number of gallons in 1 inch reveals that some 103.2 billion gallons of water fall on Atlanta in an average year. In a city the size of Atlanta, the per capita water use is about 110 gallons per day or 40,150 gallons per year. Thus, the water from a year's precipitation, if it could be collected and stored without any loss, would supply the needs of about 2,574,000 people.


Water Science School Activity Center


Use our Interactive Rainfall Calculator (English units or Metric units)
to find out how much rain falls on your roof or yard, in your city block, or town.



When it rains, where does it go?

Once on the land, rainfall either seeps into the ground or becomes runoff, which flows into rivers and lakes. What happens to the rain after it falls depends on many factors such as:

  • The rate of rainfall: A lot of rain in a short period tends to run off the land into streams rather than soak into the ground.
  • The topography of the land: Topography is the lay of the land -- the hills, valleys, mountains, and canyons. Water falling on uneven land drains downhill until it becomes part of a stream, finds a hollow place to accumulate, like a lake, or soaks into the ground.
  • Soil conditions: There is a lot of dense clay in the southeastern United States that rain has a hard time soaking into. Contrast that to the sandy soils in more desert areas, which allow water to quickly be absorbed, at least initially.
  • Density of vegetation: It has long been known that plant growth helps decrease erosion caused by flowing water. If you look at hills without vegetation you'll see gullies dug out by running water. Land with plant cover slows the speed of the water flowing on it and thus helps to keep soil from eroding.
  • Amount of urbanization: As a city is being built, a lot of money and construction goes into moving water out of built-up areas. Roads, pavement, and parking lots create impervious areas where water can no longer seep into the ground. Rather, water is funneled into creeks and streams that were never meant by nature to handle so much runoff. This can cause problems in urban areas.


Water Equivalents (approximate)

The following equivalents show the relationship between the volume and weight of water and between the volume and speed of flowing water.

Volume and weight

  • One inch of rain falling on 1 acre of ground is equal to about 27,154 gallons and weighs about 113 tons.
  • An inch of snow falling evenly on 1 acre of ground is equivalent to about 2,715 gallons of water. This figure, however, based upon the "rule-of-thumb" that 10 inches of snow is equal to 1 inch of water, can vary considerably, depending on whether the snow is heavy and wet, or powdery and dry. Heavy, wet snow has a very high water content—4 or 5 inches of this kind of snow contains about 1 inch of water. Thus, an inch of very wet snow over an acre might amount to more than 5,400 gallons of water, while an inch of powdery snow might yield only about 1,300 gallons.
  • One acre-foot of water (the amount of water covering 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot) equals 326,000 gallons or 43,560 cubic feet of water, and weighs 2.7 million pounds.
  • One cubic mile of water equals 1.1 trillion gallons, 147.2 billion cubic feet, or 3.38 million acre-feet, and weighs 9.2 trillion pounds (4.6 billion tons).

Rate of flow (in a stream)

  • Water flowing at the steady rate of 1 gallon per minute is equivalent to: 1,440 gallons per day; 0.00223 cubic foot per second; 192.7 cubic feet per day; or 0.00442 acre-foot of water per day.
  • Water flowing at the steady rate of 1 cubic foot per second is equivalent to: 449 gallons per minute; 646,000 gallons per day; 86,400 cubic feet per day; or 1.98 acre-feet of water per day.
  • Water flowing at the steady rate of 1 acre-foot per day is equivalent to: 226 gallons per minute; 326,000 gallons per day; 0.504 cubic foot per second; or 43, 560 cubic feet of water per day.
  • Water flowing at the steady rate of 1 cubic mile per day is equivalent to: 764.6 million gallons per minute; 1.1 trillion gallons per day; 1.7 million cubic feet per day; or 3.38 million acre-feet of water per day.


Sources and more information


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Amount of water received when an inch of rain occurs

How much water falls during a rainstorm?

Have you ever wondered how much water falls onto your yard during a rainstorm? Using a 1-inch rainstorm as an example, the table below gives example of how much water falls during a storm for various land areas.