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Hydrologic Cycle

Earth is unique in our solar system in that it contains water, which is necessary to sustain life as we know it. Water that falls to the ground as precipitation is critically important to the hydrologic cycle, the sequence of events that moves water from the atmosphere to the earth's surface and back again. Some precipitation falls directly into the oceans, but precipitation that falls on land can be transported to the oceans through rivers or underground in aquifers. Water stored in this permeable rock can take thousands of years to reach the sea. Water is also contained in reservoirs such as lakes and the polar ice caps, but about 97% of the earth's water is contained in the oceans. The sun's energy heats and evaporates water from the ocean surface. On average, evaporation exceeds precipitation over the oceans, while precipitation exceeds evaporation over land masses. Horizontal air motions can transfer evaporated water to areas where clouds and precipitation subsequently form, completing the circle which can then begin again.

The distribution of precipitation is not uniform across the earth's surface, and varies with time of day, season and year. The lifting and cooling that produces precipitation can be caused by solar heating of the earth's surface, or by forced lifting of air over obstacles or when two different air masses converge. For these reasons, precipitation is generally heavy in the tropics and on the upwind side of tall mountain ranges. Precipitation over the oceans is heaviest at about 7°N latitude (the intertropical convergence zone), where the tradewinds converge and large thunderstorms frequently occur. While summer is the "wet season" for most of Asia and northern Europe, winter is the wettest time of year for Mediterranean regions and western North America. Precipitation is frequently associated with large-scale low-pressure systems (cyclones) at mid-latitudes.

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