Surface water is just how it sounds: water that has collected on the surface of the ground. As simple as it is, surface water has massive, sweeping impacts on how and where we live our lives. Also known as “blue water,” surface water forms into landscape features such as rivers, wetlands, lakes, and reservoirs. Our cultures and movements are determined by this water – even if we don’t stop to think about it.
Surface water is mostly produced by precipitation, snow, and runoff from nearby areas. And while surface water is all around, its levels and presence fluctuate in ways you can observe in nearby creeks, streams, or waterholes. Changes in levels of this water occur often. This rise or fall based on precipitation, evaporation, or water moving and transitioning into groundwater.
So why is surface water important? The EPA estimates that 68% of the water we use is surface water. Surface water is what we as individuals and as a society depend upon to survive.
Scientists separate surface water into three distinct groups. These groups can be helpful to know when distinguishing how surface water is used as well as the political implications of those uses on people.
Permanent, or sometimes called perennial, surface water is present year-round. Swamps, lakes, rivers are examples of permanent groundwater. These bodies of water are persistent and in the case of drought, are replenished by groundwater.
Semi-permanent surface water, also called ephemeral surface water, includes features such as creeks, streams, waterholes, and lagoons. These bodies of water only exist for part of the year.
Man-made surface water includes dams, reservoirs, and artificial swamps. Man-made surface water can be intended for aesthetic purposes but is also an appealing energy source. Hydropower is a form of renewable energy that uses surface water, forcing it to produce energy that we can harness and sell.
Below are 10 famous examples of surface water on earth. These bodies of water shift with the seasons, many are changing due to climate change, and throughout the ages, humans have interacted, depended, and enjoyed these incredible examples of surface water on earth:
A river that has profoundly shaped both the American geography and psyche, the Mississippi River begins in Minnesota and ends in Louisianna at the Gulf of Mexico. There are 29 locks and dams on this vast, snaking body.
Many people are lobbying for increased investment in hydroelectric power. Currently, the Enbridge pipeline project has raised serious environmental concerns and a movement has formed in opposition to this development, led by indigenous caretakers such as Honor The Earth.
The great lakes of North America are an expansive example of surface water. They contain 21% of Earth’s freshwater. Formed by retreated glaciers, these lakes have been and continue to be a major hub for trade, migration, and transport. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter ship, sank to the bottom of Lake Superior in 1975. It remains on the bed of the lake today. To learn more, check out Gordon Lightfoot’s classic hit that chronicles the story.
Lake Volta is the world’s largest reservoir. It provides a significant amount of energy to Ghana, and that energy is also exported to neighboring countries.
Flowing from south to north, the Nile river floods and recedes for over 6,000 kilometers. Silt deposits along the Nile enrich the soil, which is rich in nutrients. Ancient Egyptians developed irrigation systems around the behavior of this body of water water and built societies of tower importance and influence upon the banks.
Iguazu Falls cascade between the borders of Brazil and Argentina. There are over 275 individual cascades. It’s a place where there is so much water spray, that rainbows bend into full circles as tourists flock to experience the magnificence.
Speaking of tourism, the famous Blue Lagoon of Iceland is a popular stop for visitors from all over the world – especially since it lies between the airport and the nation’s capital Reykjavik. What the tourists don’t always realize is that the Blue Lagoon is a man-made pool and is supplied by water that has been used at a nearby geothermal power station.
The Danube River is Europe’s second-largest river. The Roman Empire used it as a frontier during their reign. Axis and Allied forces of WWII regarded it as a dividing line. Originating in Germany, the river flows through 10 countries before draining into the Black Sea. The river exhibits massive flooding every 10 – 50 years, which has been historically devastating.
Sundarbans is one of the largest forests in the world and located in Bangladesh. This area is renowned for its ecological diversity, which includes 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger, and the Indian Python.
While people may think of blocks of (melting) ice in the polar and antarctic regions, there is plenty of surface water there too. The Onyx River is a meltwater stream that flows for a couple of months during the Antarctic summer. There aren’t fish in this stream. But, there are prolific algae blooms.
Unless you are reading this from an extraterrestrial location, there is surface water near you. Knowing the habits history of surface water in your neighborhood can be an empowering area of research and, some would argue, an essential aspect of being an informed citizen. Without access to clean water, communities and ecosystems suffer immensely. The river near your house directly impacts the lives of so many. Who is using that riverway? What governing body determines how it can be used? Are we using that water for hydropower? Are there large pollutants nearby? What organizations and individuals are fighting to protect it? How can I become involved?
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