Where Does Water Come From?

By: Jonathan Atteberry & Ian O'Neill, Ph.D.  | 
Niagara Falls
Have you ever wondered exactly where all that water charging down Niagara Falls came from? vns24@yahoo.com/Getty Images

Water surrounds us, falling from the sky, rushing down riverbeds, pouring from faucets, and yet many of us have never stopped to wonder where does water come from. The answer is a complicated one, stretching way beyond an incoming tide or a cloud heavy with rain and all the way back to the very origins of the universe.


The Role of Water in Supporting Life

It's essential to understand that water isn't just a liquid that covers our planet; it's a medium for life. The unique properties of water, such as its ability to dissolve many substances and its solid state being less dense than its liquid state (which is why ice floats), make it invaluable to life as we know it.

Water acts as a solvent, a temperature regulator, and a means of transportation for nutrients and waste. Devoid of the water cycle, the complex chain of life, from microbes to mammals, would cease to exist.


A Whole New World

Shortly after the big bang, protons, neutrons and electrons swarmed in 10 billion degree heat [source: NASA]. Within minutes, hydrogen and then helium, known as the lighter elements, had taken shape from these atomic building blocks in a process called nucleosynthesis. (Lithium had a cameo as well.)

The heavier elements didn't appear until much later, when the lighter elements underwent fusion inside of stars and during supernovas. Over time, stars sent wave after wave of these heavier elements, including oxygen, out into space where they mixed with the lighter elements.


Of course, the formation of hydrogen and oxygen molecules and the subsequent formation of water are two different things. That's because even when hydrogen and oxygen molecules mix, they still need a spark of energy to form water. The process is a violent one, and so far nobody has found a way to safely create water on Earth.

Where Did Earth's Water Come From?

So how did our planet come to be covered with surface water? The simple answer is we still don't know, but we have ideas. One theory states that, nearly 4 billion years ago, the early solar system was overrun by millions of asteroids and comets, which slammed into the surface of the relatively young planet we call Earth.

A quick glance at the moon's crater-pocked surface gives us an idea of what conditions of early Earth might have been like. The theory goes that these weren't solid rock but rather the equivalent of cosmic sponges, loaded with water that was released on impact.


While astronomers have confirmed that water rich asteroids and comets exist, some scientists think the theory doesn't. They question whether enough collisions could have taken place to account for all of Earth's water.

Also, researchers from the California Institute of Technology found that water from the comet Hale-Bopp contains much more heavy water (aka HDO, with one hydrogen atom, one deuterium atom and one oxygen atom) than the liquid water found on Earth, meaning either the comets and asteroids that hit Earth were very different than Hale-Bopp, or Earth got its regular water (aka H20, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom) some other way.

Most recently, astronomers may have revealed that the former may be true. Using observations from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — a converted 747 aircraft flying at high altitude with a 2.7-meter (106-inch) infrared telescope sticking out the tail section — they found that when Comet Wirtanen made its closest approach with Earth in December 2018, it was venting very "ocean-like" water vapor into space.

Wirtanen belongs to a specific family of comets called "hyperactive comets" that vent more water vapor into space than others. The researchers deduced this by comparing the ratio of observed H2O and HDO. Earth's oceans have a very specific D/H ratio (deuterium/hydrogen ratio), and it appears that Wirtanen shares that same ratio. As observing infrared wavelengths from the ground is impossible (Earth's atmosphere blocks these wavelengths), only space telescopes and SOFIA (which flies above most of the atmosphere) can make reliable observations of comets.

Another proposal states that a young Earth was bombarded by oxygen and other heavy elements produced within the sun. The oxygen combined with hydrogen and other gases released from Earth in a process known as degassing, forming Earth's oceans and atmosphere along the way.

A team of scientists from Japan's Tokyo Institute of Technology has devised yet another theory, which states that a thick layer of hydrogen may have once covered Earth's surface, eventually interacting with oxides in the crust to form our planet's oceans.

Finally, computer simulations reported on in 2017 have suggested a closer origin for at least some water on our planet. The idea is that water could develop deep inside Earth's mantle and eventually escape via earthquakes or other geological processes.


Water Beyond Earth

With Earth having so much water, scientists are now turning their gaze beyond our planet, to the inner solar system, the outer solar system and beyond.

Mars, one of our closest planetary neighbors, has shown evidence of once having liquid water on its surface. Jupiter's moon, Europa, and Saturn's moon, Enceladus, are believed to have subsurface oceans beneath their icy crusts.


The presence of water, or even traces of it, brings hope in the search for extraterrestrial life. Which is why the researchers at NASA's Johnson Space Center dedicate so much of their time to detecting it.

The Future of Water on Earth

As essential as water is to life, its availability and quality are under threat. Pollution, over-extraction, and climate change are just some of the challenges facing our planet's water resources.

Addressing these issues is not only a scientific endeavor but also a societal one, requiring cooperation and innovation. As we learn more about the origin and significance of water, it's crucial that we also focus on its conservation and sustainable use.


And so, while we can't say with certainty how water came to Earth, we're fortunate it did.

Finally, computer simulations reported on in 2017 have suggested a closer origin for at least some water on our planet. The idea is that water could develop deep inside Earth's mantle and eventually escape via earthquakes.


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More Great Links

  • Coghlan, Andy. "Planet Earth makes its own water from scratch deep inside the mantle." NewScientist. Jan. 17, 2017 (5/25/2019) https://www.newscientist.com/article/2119475-planet-earth-makes-its-own-water-from-scratch-deep-in-the-mantle/
  • Environmental Graffiti. "Mother Earth: Water: The Lifeblood of our Planet." (7/30/2010) http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/ecology/mother-Earth-water-the-lifeblood-of-our-planet/586
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