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What is groundwater?

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What is the water cycle, and how do all of its components interact? Water cycle descriptions usually include clouds, rain, snow, evaporation, and maybe even transpiration, but water beneath the earth’s surface—groundwater and aquifers—may not always be included.

Groundwater and aquifers are important in nature, as well as in our everyday lives. This comprehensive, vocabulary-filled animation from (the now-retired) KQED Quest series tells the story of groundwater: where it is, where it comes from, and where it goes.

trees and plants accessing water
Terms also include surface water, water table, saturated zone, unsaturated zone, and springs. From the video:

“When it rains, some water gets soaked up by plants; some water runs off the soil and into streams, lakes, or even the ocean; other water gets stuck on the surface and eventually evaporates back into the air.”

water soaking down into groundwater

“Meanwhile, some of the lucky water droplets get to travel down through the surface, deep underground until they reach the water table and become a part of an aquifer. Once water seeps down deep enough into the ground, it can stay there for a really long time. Some of the water stored in the deepest parts of aquifers has been there for thousands of years.

“But after it gets there, groundwater doesn’t always stay underground; a lot of the water on the surface comes from aquifers.”

Learn more about how water seeps, percolates, flows, and can be pumped from below ground, how (and how much) American farms use groundwater, and how responsible use of groundwater makes our modern lives possible.

farms and cities that use groundwater
Related reading: What is hydrology and what do hydrologists do?

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Why Most Rain Never Reaches The Ground
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