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In the hydrologic cycle, water is transferred between the land surface, the ocean, and the atmosphere. The numbers on the arrows indicate relative water fluxes.

Because of its prominence, water has long played an important religious and philosophical role in human history. In the 6th century bce, Thales of Miletus, sometimes credited for initiating Greek philosophy, regarded water as the sole fundamental building block of matter:

It is water that, in taking different forms, constitutes the earth, atmosphere, sky, mountains, gods and men, beasts and birds, grass and trees, and animals down to worms, flies and ants. All these are different forms of water. Meditate on water!

Two hundred years later, Aristotle considered water to be one of four fundamental elements, in addition to earth, air, and fire. The belief that water was a fundamental substance persisted for more than 2,000 years until experiments in the second half of the 18th century showed that water is a compound made up of the elements hydrogen and oxygen.


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The water on the surface of Earth is found mainly in its oceans (97.25 percent) and polar ice caps and glaciers (2.05 percent), with the balance in freshwater lakes, rivers, and groundwater. As Earth’s population grows and the demand for fresh water increases, water purification and recycling become increasingly important. Interestingly, the purity requirements of water for industrial use often exceed those for human consumption. For example, the water used in high-pressure boilers must be at least 99.999998 percent pure. Because seawater contains large quantities of dissolved salts, it must be desalinated for most uses, including human consumption.

The Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the border of Nevada and Arizona demonstrates how natural resources of water can be harnessed for a variety of purposes, including human consumption, irrigation, and industry.
Water treatment systems are important for desalinating seawater so it can be used for human consumption and for purifying water for industrial use.

This article describes the molecular structure of water as well as its physical and chemical properties. For other major treatments of water, see climate; environmental works; hydrosphere; ice; and pollution.

Structure of water

Liquid water

The water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms, each linked by a single chemical bond to an oxygen atom. Most hydrogen atoms have a nucleus consisting solely of a proton. Two isotopic forms, deuterium and tritium, in which the atomic nuclei also contain one and two neutrons, respectively, are found to a small degree in water. Deuterium oxide (D2O), called heavy water, is important in chemical research and is also used as a neutron moderator in some nuclear reactors.

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A water molecule is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. A single oxygen atom contains six electrons in its outer shell, which can hold a total of eight electrons. When two hydrogen atoms are bound to an oxygen atom, the outer electron shell of oxygen is filled.