Global Water Cycle


The global water cycle describes the circulation of water around the world from one store to another via repeated evaporation of water from land and the oceans and precipitation back to the surface. The greatest amount of water is stored in the sea, and most fresh water in ice sheets and groundwater. Much groundwater is decoupled from the current hydrological cycle, having been formed in earlier wetter periods. The ‘mobile’ part of the cycle comprises only a small proportion of the total water.

Keywords: hydrology; precipitation; evaporation; runoff; human impacts

Figure 1.

Fluxes of water in the global water cycle (103 km3a−1). Data from Berner and Berner .

Figure 2.

Distribution of average annual precipitation, evaporation and runoff, and the ratio of runoff to rainfall. Precipitation data from New et al., runoff from Korzun .

Figure 3.

The hydrological cycle in a catchment.

Figure 4.

Four monthly runoff regimes.

Figure 5.

Daily flows for two British catchments.

Figure 6.

Global abstraction of water. Data from Shiklomanov .



Arnell NW (1999) Climate change and global water resources. Global Environmental Change 9: S31–S49.

Arnell NW and Liu C (2001) Hydrology and water resources. In: McCarthy J and Canziani O (eds) Climate Change 2001: Impacts and Adaptations. Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Asdak C, Jarvis PG, van Gardingen P and Fraser A (1998) Rainfall interception loss in unlogged and logged forest areas of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Journal of Hydrology 206: 237–244.

Barry RG and Chorley RJ (1998) Atmosphere, Weather and Climate. London: Routledge.

Berner KB and Berner RA (1987) The Global Water Cycle. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brubaker KL, Entekhabi D and Eagleson PS (1993) Estimation of continental precipitation recycling. Journal of Climate 6: 1077–1089.

Crockford RH and Richardson DP (1990) Partitioning of rainfall in a Eucalypt forest and pine plantation in south‐eastern Australia: IV. The role of interception and canopy storage capacity on the interception of these forests, and the effect on interception of thinning the pine plantation. Hydrological Processes 4: 169–188.

Gash JHC and Stewart JB (1977) The evaporation from Thetford Forest during 1975. Journal of Hydrology 35: 385–396.

Gash JHC, Kabat P and Monteny BA et al. (1997) The variability of evaporation during the HAPEX‐Sahel Intensive Observation Period. Journal of Hydrology 188–189: 385–399.

Gleick PH (ed.) (1993) Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World's Fresh Water Resources. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gornitz V, Rosenzweig C and Hillel D (1997) Effects of anthropogenic intervention in the land hydrologic cycle on global sea level rise. Global and Planetary Change 14: 147–161.

Ibanez C, Prat N and Canicio A (1996) Changes in the hydrology and sediment transport produced by large dams on the lower Ebro River and its estuary. Regulated Rivers 12: 51–62.

Korzun VI (1978) World Water Balance and Water Resources of the Earth. Studies and Reports in Hydrology, 25. Paris: Unesco.

Malmer A (1996) Hydrological effects and nutrient losses of forest plantation establishment on tropical rainforest land in Sabah, Malaysia. Journal of Hydrology 174: 129–148.

Micklin PP (1988) Desiccation of the Aral Sea − a water management disaster in the Soviet Union. Science 241: 1170–1175.

New MG, Hulme M and Jones PD (1999) Representing twentieth century space–time climate variability. Part 1: Development of a 1961–1990 mean monthly terrestrial climatology. Journal of Climate 12: 829–856.

Nicholson S (2000) Land surface processes and Sahel climate. Reviews of Geophysics 38: 117–139.

Scatena FN (1990) Watershed scale rainfall interception on two forested watersheds in the Luguillo Mountains of Puerto Rico. Journal of Hydrology 113: 89–102.

Schinke H and Matthaus W (1998) On the causes of major Baltic inflows − an analysis of long time series. Continental Shelf Research 18: 67–97.

Shiklomanov IA (1998) Assessment of Water Resources and Water Availability in the World. Background Report for the Comprehensive Assessment of the Freshwater Resources of the World. Stockholm: Stockholm Environment Institute.

Shuttleworth WJ (1993) Evaporation. In: Maidment DR (ed.) Handbook of Hydrology. pp. 4.1–4.53. New York: McGraw‐Hill

Sud YC, Yang R and Walker GR (1996) Impact of in situ deforestation in Amazonia on the regional climate: general circulation model simulation study. Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres 101: 7095–7109.

Trenberth KE (1998) Atmospheric moisture recycling: role of advection and local evaporation. Journal of Climate 12(3): 1368–1381.

Turley CM (1999) The changing Mediterranean Sea – a sensitive ecosystem? Progress in Oceanography 44: 387–400.

World Commission on Dams (2000) Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision‐Making. London: Earthscan.

Further Reading

Arnell NW (2001) Hydrology and Global Environmental Change. Harlow: Pearson.

Barry RG and Chorley RJ (1998) Atmosphere, Weather and Climate. London: Routledge.

Berner KB and Berner RA (1987) The Global Water Cycle. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gleick PH (1998) The World's Water. The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources 1998–1999. San Francisco, CA: Island Press.

Neal C, Robson AJ and Bhardwaj CL et al. (1993) Relationships between precipitation, streamflow and throughfall for a lowland beech plantation, Black Wood, Hampshire, Southern England. Journal of Hydrology 146: 221–233.

Newson MD (1997) Water, Land and Developmen. London: Routledge.

Ward RC and Robinson M (2000) Principles of Hydrology. London: McGraw‐Hill.

World Commission on Dams (2000) Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision‐Making. London: Earthscan.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Arnell, Nigel W(May 2005) Global Water Cycle. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0004087]