The Hydrosphere and the Cryosphere

Mains Marks Booster     5th August 2023        

The Hydrosphere and the Cryosphere


  • The hydrosphere constitutes all of the Earth's water in its various forms, including oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, groundwater, ice, and water vapor in the atmosphere. Covering approximately 70% of the Earth's surface, the hydrosphere plays a crucial role in sustaining life on the planet.
  • The hydrosphere's importance cannot be overstated. It regulates temperature, sustains life, influences weather patterns, and supports diverse ecosystems. Moreover, it forms an integral part of Earth's natural recycling system: the hydrological cycle.

Water on the Surface of the Earth:

The vast majority of water in the hydrosphere is found in the oceans, which hold about 97.5% of all Earth's water. The remaining 2.5% is freshwater, found in glaciers, ice caps, groundwater, lakes, rivers, and the atmosphere.
Water on the Surface of the Earth

  • Oceans: They are vast, interconnected bodies of saltwater covering most of the Earth's surface. They are crucial for moderating global climate and host a vast array of biodiversity.
  • Freshwater Bodies: These are bodies of water that have low salinity, such as lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. They play a crucial role in providing water for drinking, irrigation, and power generation.
  • Groundwater: This refers to the water present beneath the Earth's surface in soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations. It is a crucial source of water for agriculture and personal use.
  • Ice Caps and Glaciers: They store about 69% of the world's freshwater and play a critical role in Earth's climate system.

The Hydrological Cycle

The hydrological or water cycle is a circular system that describes how water evaporates from the surface of the earth, rises into the atmosphere, cools and condenses into clouds, and falls back to the surface as precipitation. The water that falls to Earth may evaporate again or flow into rivers and eventually into the oceans.

The Hydrological Cycle

The cycle comprises several key processes:

  • Evaporation: This process transforms liquid water into a gaseous state, which then rises into the atmosphere.
  • Transpiration: This is the evaporation of water from plants through their leaves.
  • Condensation: As the water vapor rises, it cools and transforms back into liquid form, creating clouds.
  • Precipitation: When the cloud particles become too heavy to remain suspended in the cloud, they fall to Earth as rain, snow, sleet, or hail.
  • Runoff and Infiltration: Water that reaches the Earth's surface often flows over the surface as runoff, eventually collecting in bodies of water. Some of this water also infiltrates or percolates into the ground and becomes groundwater.

Cryosphere: The Icy Component of the Hydrosphere

  • The cryosphere is a term derived from the Greek word 'kryos', meaning cold or ice.
  •  It refers to the component of the Earth's system that consists of frozen water – in glaciers, ice caps, icebergs, sea ice, snow, and permafrost. The cryosphere is an integral part of the hydrosphere and plays a vital role in the Earth's climate system.
  • Snow and ice, due to their light color, reflect a significant amount of sunlight back into space, which helps regulate the Earth's temperature. In addition, the cryosphere stores about three-quarters of the world's freshwater.
  • The cryosphere's health is a key indicator of global climate trends. The ongoing reduction in the size of the world's ice masses is one of the most visible indicators of global climate change.

Impact of Cryosphere on Global Climate:

  • Albedo Effect: One of the most significant contributions of the cryosphere to the global climate system is the albedo effect. Ice and snow, due to their light color, reflect a significant amount of solar radiation back into space (around 80-90%), which helps to regulate the Earth's temperature. As the cryosphere diminishes due to climate change, this reflective capacity decreases, leading to increased absorption of solar radiation and further warming—a phenomenon known as a positive feedback loop.
  • Sea Level Regulation: The cryosphere plays a critical role in regulating sea levels. Glaciers and ice sheets store massive amounts of water; when these ice masses melt due to rising global temperatures, the water flows into the world's oceans, contributing to sea level rise. For instance, if all the ice in the Greenland ice sheet melted, it could cause sea levels to rise by about 7 meters, dramatically impacting coastal communities worldwide.
  • Temperature Regulation: The cryosphere can help to regulate temperatures. Ice and snow require significant amounts of energy to change temperature (high heat capacity), meaning they can help to moderate Earth's climate by absorbing heat in the summer and releasing it in the winter.
  • Carbon Storage: Permafrost, frozen ground in the cryosphere, stores a large amount of carbon—more than twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. As global temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, this carbon can be released as methane and carbon dioxide, potent greenhouse gases that contribute to further climate warming—a process known as the permafrost carbon feedback.
  • Ocean Circulation: The cryosphere also impacts global ocean circulation. When sea ice forms, it expels salt into the surrounding water, making it denser and causing it to sink. This process helps drive thermohaline circulation, a global 'conveyor belt' of ocean currents that redistributes heat around the planet and influences climate.


The cryosphere significantly impacts the global climate, and changes to it due to anthropogenic climate change can have far-reaching implications for weather patterns, sea levels, and the livability of many parts of the world. The relationships between the cryosphere, oceans, atmosphere, and biosphere underscore the complexity and interconnectivity of Earth's climate system.