Surface Water

Surface Water

Surface water is any body of water found on the Earth’s surface, including both the saltwater in the ocean and the freshwater in rivers, streams, and lakes. A body of surface water can persist all year long or for only part of the year.


5 - 8


Biology, Conservation, Earth Science


Surface Water

Rivers are a major type of surface water. Surface water is a key component to the hydrologic cycle.

Photograph by a_Taiga
Rivers are a major type of surface water. Surface water is a key component to the hydrologic cycle.

Surface water is any body of water above ground, including streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, reservoirs, and creeks. The ocean, despite being saltwater, is also considered surface water. Surface water participates in the hydrologic cycle, or water cycle, which involves the movement of water to and from the Earth’s surface. Precipitation and water runoff feed bodies of surface water. Evaporation and seepage of water into the ground, on the other hand, cause water bodies to lose water. Water that seeps deep into the ground is called groundwater.

Surface water and groundwater are reservoirs that can feed into each other. While surface water can seep underground to become groundwater, groundwater can resurface on land to replenish surface water. Springs are formed in these locations.

There are three types of surface water: perennial, ephemeral, and man-made. Perennial, or permanent, surface water persists throughout the year and is replenished with groundwater when there is little precipitation. Ephemeral, or semi-permanent, surface water exists for only part of the year. Ephemeral surface water includes small creeks, lagoons, and water holes. Man-made surface water is found in artificial structures, such as dams and constructed wetlands.

Since surface water is more easily accessible than groundwater, it is relied on for many human uses. It is an important source of drinking water and is used for the irrigation of farmland. In 2015, almost 80 percent of all water used in the United States came from surface water. Wetlands with surface water are also important habitats for aquatic plants and wildlife.

The planet’s surface water can be monitored using both surface measurements and satellite imagery. The flow rates of streams are measured by calculating the discharge—the amount of water moving down the stream per unit of time—at multiple points along the stream. Monitoring the flow rate of streams is important as it helps determine the impact of human activities and climate change on the availability of surface water. Keeping track of vegetation around bodies of surface water is also important. The removal of vegetation, either through natural means such as fires, or through deforestation, can have a negative impact on surface water. Loss of vegetation can lead to increased surface runoff and erosion, which in turn can increase the risk of flooding.

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National Geographic Society
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Clint Parks
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 26, 2024

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