Biochemistry (Water and Life)

Water and Life
Water and Life

Water is found in all forms of life on Earth in some form or another. The human body is about 70% water, and other organisms, such as jellyfish, contain as much as 95% water. All of the oxygen that animals breathe had its origin as water. During photosynthesis (the process of using light to create food energy), plants break water apart to produce oxygen and food.

Water is one of the most abundant molecules on Earth. There are approximately 350 million cubic miles (1.4 billion cubic kilometers) of water on the planet. Nearly 97% of all water is found in the oceans, which cover two-thirds of the surface area of the planet.

About 90% of all fresh water is frozen in the ice in the North and South Poles and glaciers (large slow-moving masses of ice). Less than 1% of all the water on Earth is available for consumption, and most of it is found in aquifers (porous rock chambers holding fresh water) underground.

Chemistry of Water


Water is the most common substance on Earth, covering almost three quarters of the planet’s surface. Known by its chemical symbol, H2O, water is the only known substance on Earth that naturally exists as a gas, liquid, and solid. The vast majority of water, about 97%, is in the oceans.

The liquid form of water also exists in lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater (water beneath Earth’s surface that is held between soil particles and rock, often supplying wells and springs). In its solid form, water makes up sheets of ice on the North and South Poles, and permanent snow.

Water also exists as water vapor (gas) in the atmosphere. The hydrosphere is the whole body of water that exists on or around Earth, which includes all the bodies of water, ice, and water vapor in the atmosphere. All life needs water to survive and the cells of all living things contain water.

Hydrologic Cycle

Hydrologic Cycle
Hydrologic Cycle

Water is in constant motion. Energy from the sun and the force of gravity drive the hydrologic cycle, which is the endless circulation of water between the land, oceans, and atmosphere (air surrounding Earth). Water also changes in form: from gas (water vapor), to liquid, to solid (ice). Rain and snow falling on the land runs off into streams and lakes, or soaks into soil and rocks.

Streams and rivers carry water downhill to lakes and, ultimately, to the ocean. Heat energy from the Sun transforms liquid water at the surface of lakes and oceans and other bodies of water into water vapor. Water vapor in the atmosphere rises and forms clouds. Cooling within clouds causes water vapor to become liquid once again. Rain and snow fall and the cycle begins anew.

The water budget

Earth’s water budget, the total amount of water on the planet, does not change over time. The hydrologic cycle is a closed system. Water is constantly moving and changing form, but it is neither created nor destroyed. With the exception of a very small amount of water added to the hydrologic system by volcanic eruptions and meteors from space, Earth’s total water supply is constant.

Physics of Water

Physics of Water
Physics of Water

Why is water wet? Many people will answer this question by simply saying, “Because it is.” The physical properties of water are fundamental to life and nature on Earth, and are often accepted as simple truths. Water is so common on Earth that its physical characteristics have a large impact on the physics of Earth in general. (Physics is the study of matter and energy, and of interactions between the two.)

Water covers almost three quarters of the planet’s surface. It is the only natural chemical substance that exists as a liquid, solid (ice), and gas (water vapor) within Earth’s normal temperature range. Water is liquid in a range critical for biological life (0–100°C, 32–212°F), and liquid water is present almost everywhere on Earth. Water’s ability to absorb heat regulates Earth’s climate and weather.

Phase changes

Matter exists in three states, or phases: solid, liquid, and gas. (Matter is anything that has mass and takes up space). Substances like water change from one phase to another at specific temperatures and pressures. Add heat (or pressure), and a substance begins to change from a solid to a liquid at its melting point. Add more heat, and the substance will begin to evaporate, to turn from liquid to gas, at its boiling point.

Biology of the Oceans

Biology of the Oceans
Biology of the Oceans

All organisms that live in the ocean are subject to the physical factors of the underwater environment. Some of the more important factors that affect marine (ocean) organisms are light levels, nutrients (chemicals required for growth), temperature, salinity (concentration of salt in the water), and pressure. In general, conditions in the ocean are more stable than those on land.

Light

The amount of light in a certain location controls the growth of the single-celled marine algae called phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are the base of the marine food chain, meaning they are the food for other organisms, who then are the food for higher organisms and so forth.

These plants convert sunlight and water into the carbohydrates (sugars) they feed on in a process called photosynthesis. Unlike land, where plants generally live on surfaces, in the ocean, light travels through the water allowing phytoplankton to grow over a vertical distance of nearly 500 feet in some locations (about 150 meters).

Coastlines

Coastlines
Coastlines

Coastlines are boundaries between land and water that surround Earth’s continents and islands. Scientists define the coast, or coastal zone, as a broad swath (belt) of land and sea where fresh water mixes with salt water. Land and sea processes work together to shape features along coastlines. Freshwater lakes do not technically have coastal zones, but many of the processes (waves, tides) and features found along ocean coastlines also exist in large lakes.

Coastal zone features

All coastlines include a thin strip of land that is submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide, called the shoreline. The coastal zone, however, extends far inland from the shore, across lowlands called coastal plains, and far seaward to the water depth where ocean waves do not reach the seafloor. The coastal zone includes lagoons, beaches, estuaries, tidal wetlands, tidal inlets, river deltas, barrier bars and islands, sand bars, and other shallow-water ocean features.
  • Lagoons: Shallow, salt-water bays between barrier islands and the mainland. 
  • Beaches: Sand deposits along shorelines. Intense waves wash fine-grained mud from coastal sediments (particles of sand, gravel, and silt) leaving only sand-sized grains of resistant minerals like quartz and calcium carbonate. Beaches are common on the seaward side of barrier islands where wave energy is intense. 
  • Estuaries: The mouths of rivers and streams that receive a pulse of saltwater with the tides. 
  • Tidal wetlands (flats): The broad areas of marshy wetlands around lagoons and estuaries that flood with salt water during high tides.
  • Tidal inlets: Openings through which water and sediment are washed in and out of lagoons by daily tides. 
  • Deltas: Deposits of sediments at the mouths (ends) of rivers that flow into the ocean. 
  • Barrier bars and islands: Long mounds, or bars, parallel to the shore into which near-shore ocean currents carry and deposit sand. Eventually, some barrier bars grow tall enough to stay exposed at high tide and become barrier islands. The outer banks of North Carolina as well as Galveston, Mustang Island, and South Padre Island in Texas are examples of barrier islands. 
  • Sand bar: A ridge of sand in rivers or along the coast built up by water currents.

Currents and Circulation Patterns in the Oceans

Currents and Circulation Patterns in the Oceans
Currents and Circulation Patterns in the Oceans

The oceans are in constant motion. Ocean currents are the horizontal and vertical circulation of ocean waters that produce a steady flow of water in a prevailing direction. Currents of ocean water distribute heat around the globe and help regulate Earth’s climate, even on land. Currents carry and recycle nutrients that nourish marine (ocean) and coastal plants and animals.

Human navigators depend on currents to carry their ships across the oceans. Winds drive currents of surface water. Differences in temperature and salinity (saltiness) cause water to circulate in the deep ocean. The rotation of the Earth, the shape of the seafloor, and the shapes of coastlines also determine the complex pattern of surface and deep ocean currents.

Ocean water is layered. The shallowest water, called surface water, is warmer, fresher, and lighter than deep water, which is colder, saltier, and denser. The boundary between surface and deep water is a thin layer marked by an abrupt change of temperature and salinity. This layer, called the thermocline, exists in most places in the oceans. Surface and deep water only mix in regions where specific conditions allow deep water to rise or surface water to sink.

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