According to the USGS, the Earth contains about 332.5 million cubic miles (mi3), or 1,386 million cubic kilometers (km3) of water.
Earth’s water is in constant motion, cycling through the Earth’s water circulation system, moving through the oceans, the air, the land, and back again.
What is the Hydrosphere?
In geography, all the water on Earth, whether it is found in water bodies, the ground, the air, or in living organisms is known as the hydrosphere.
Where is Water Found on Earth?
The great majority of Earth’s water is contained in the oceans, seas, and bays with 96.5% and totals about 321,000,000 cubic miles.
Earth’s Freshwater Sources
Only about 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater.
Over two-thirds of Earth’s freshwater is locked up in ice caps and glaciers, totaling about 5,773,000 cubic miles in volume.
Outside of the polar regions, the world’s largest reservoir of freshwater is stored within tens of thousands of glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau. The Tibetan Plateau is nicknamed the “Third Pole” because of its enormous reservoir of freshwater.
The majority of the remaining freshwater is found in the world’s groundwater at 30.1%.
The remaining 1.2% of the world’s freshwater is mainly from surface water such as lakes, ground ice cover, the atmosphere, and biological water.
The atmosphere holds about 0.04% of the world’s water and biological matter (such as plants and animals) contains another 0.003%.
The table below shows estimated sources of water.
Table: Global Water Distribution
|Water source||Water volume, in cubic miles||Water volume, in cubic kilometers||% Freshwater||% total water|
|Oceans, Seas, & Bays||321,000,000||1,338,000,000||—||96.5|
|Ice caps, Glaciers, & Permanent Snow||5,773,000||24,064,000||68.7||1.74|
|Ground Ice & Permafrost||71,970||300,000||0.86||0.022|
Source: Shiklomanov, 1993
Sources of Freshwater
This infographic from the United Nations Environmental Programme also adapted from Shiklomanov’s work shows the global distribution of freshwater sources from glaciers and ice caps, rivers and estuaries, and groundwater.
Watch: Earth’s Water
Read next: Groundwater on Earth
Shiklomanov, Igor . 1993. “World fresh water resources”. Peter H. Gleick (editor), 1993, Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s Fresh Water Resources.
The World’s Water. USGS.
This article was first published November 13,2014 and has since been updated.