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Content Benchmark E.8.A.3
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Earth Science
Atmospheric Process and Water Cycle
Solar System and Universe
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Nature of Science (NOS)
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Physical Science

Students know the properties that make water an essential component of the earth system.  E/S

Picture yourself on a hot summer day…is water involved?  Does your damp skin feel the cooling effect of a light breeze?  Maybe you’re thirsty and sipping on a glass of lemonade, ice cubes bobbing at the surface.  Perhaps you are at the beach, listening to the waves crash onto the shore, or you’re in your backyard hearing the sprinklers on the lawn.  Yes, water is involved.  Water, in all of its forms, is one of the most important chemicals on Earth and provides the opportunity for life.  Now think about some famous events - the Johnstown Flood, the Dust Bowl, Hurricane Katrina, and the sinking of the Titanic.  What do these disasters have in common?  The answer, again, is water; too much of it, not enough of it, in the wrong place or in the wrong form.  Benign or belligerent - the properties of water make it important, not only for living things, but also for the systems of a dynamic Earth – its atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. 

Earth’s Water Distribution
Water has the distinction of being the only compound that exists in all three states of matter at normal Earth temperatures and pressures – solid (ice), liquid (water, both salty and fresh), and gas (vapor in the atmosphere).  Almost 75% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, both saline and fresh.  Most of Earth’s water (96.5%) is in the saline oceans.  The approximately 4% that is fresh water is not all usable to humans.  Of Earth’s total freshwater, almost 70% is locked up in ice and glaciers. Another 30% of freshwater is in the ground. Surface-water sources, such as lakes and rivers, constitute only about 1/10,000th of one percent of Earth’s total water.

Figure 1. The distribution of Earth’s water

Additionally, only about 0.001% of Earth’s total water can be found in the atmosphere, although water in the atmosphere and in the oceans both serve to distribute heat energy, as well as to influence weather and climate.

Further information about weather and climate can be found in

MS TIPS Benchmarks E.8.A.2
MS TIPS Benchmarks E.8.A.4
MS TIPS Benchmarks E.8.A.5
MS TIPS Benchmarks E.8.A.6

Physical and Chemical Properties of the Water Molecule
As stated earlier, water is the only naturally occurring substance on Earth that can exist as a solid, liquid, and gas at normal Earth temperatures.  The various properties of water in all three states derive from the physical and chemical characteristics of the water molecule.  The chemical formula for water is H2O.  Its formula shows that two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom, but doesn’t show how the molecule is structured in three-dimensional space, or give its properties.  A little chemistry is necessary to fully appreciate the physical and chemical properties of water, which make it so essential to Earth processes.  First of all, the bonds between the two hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atom are mostly of a covalent nature.  That is, the one available electron from each of the two hydrogen atoms spends some of the time with the six valence electrons belonging to the oxygen atom.  (Two of oxygen’s eight electrons reside within the innermost energy level of the atom’s electron cloud and do not take part in bonding.) An electron from the oxygen atom spends some of the time with each of the two hydrogen atoms.  This sharing of electrons provides a stable octet of valence electrons for the oxygen atom, and a stable duet of electrons for the two hydrogen atoms. 

The stability of these molecular bonds provides for a very stable molecule.  But, because the oxygen atom has a greater affinity for electrons than the hydrogen atoms do (it is more electronegative), the probability of finding the shared electrons in the vicinity of the oxygen end of the molecular electron cloud is high.  This gives the molecule positive and negative ends (poles) and it is said to be polar.


Figure 2.  Water molecules are polar.

This polarity results in liquid water molecules being attracted to each other, positive to negative, and “sticking” together through weak but effective hydrogen bonding. Water has cohesion because of hydrogen bonding. Although water’s hydrogen bonds are easily made and broken, the attraction between the water molecules creates a strong film.  This surface tension permits water to hold up substances heavier and denser than it is. A steel needle carefully placed on the surface of a glass of water will float. Some aquatic insects such as the water strider rely on surface tension to walk on waterWater also has adhesion – its polarity causes it to “stick” to many other surfaces (adheres).  The combination of cohesion, surface tension, and adhesion allows water to show capillary action, or “wicking” – it will creep up a narrow tube, like a drinking straw.  The smaller the diameter of the tube, the higher the water will move up the tube, until the mass of water in the tube is great enough for gravitational forces to overcome the intermolecular forces, and it stops moving up any further.  Capillary action is essential for plants to extract water from the soil and transport it within the entire plant.  It is also the mechanism that water often utilizes as it moves through soil and rock.  The importance of this ability cannot be overstated, although it is often overlooked.


 Figure 3.  Capillary Flow Experiment to investigate capillary flows and
phenomena onboard the International Space Station. 

For more information about chemical bonding refer to MS TIPS Benchmark P.8.A.4

The Water Molecule and its Physical States
Water changes state between solid (ice) and liquid when it melts and freezes.  It changes state between liquid and gas when it vaporizes and condenses.  In all cases, energy is involved.

Figure 4.  Phase change diagram for water.

The process of changing state between solid and liquid requires heat energy to be added or removed.  This energy is called the Heat of Fusion and is equivalent to about 80 calories per gram of water.  Having gained heat energy, water molecules move around more than they do in the solid state.  They have cohesion and can flow easily. The change in state between liquid and vapor requires about 540 calories per gram of water to be added or removed.  This is the Heat of Vaporization.  The energy that water molecules have absorbed to change state to vapor causes them to be much more energetic and move around more than water molecules in the liquid state.  They exist as single water molecules most of the time, moving quickly about with a relatively large amount of space between them. 

For more information about the phase changes of water visit

Why Does Ice Float?
All water on Earth is subject to freezing, seawater and fresh.  The parameters for freezing of seawater are different than that of fresh water, but the process is the same.  When water molecules release enough energy they freeze and change state to solid (ice). Ice is less dense than water, which causes it to float on water.  Why?  As the water molecules slow down during freezing, they have more opportunity to form durable hydrogen bonds with each other.  The shape and polarity of the water molecule dictates that every water molecule in ice has only 4 hydrogen bonded neighbors.  When networked through extensive hydrogen bonding, ice can be viewed as a series of hexagonal (6 sided) rings, which forces the ice structure to be very “open” and have more space between molecules than liquid water.  Ice has fewer molecules per unit volume that does water, making it less dense than water.

Figure 5.  Open space in hexagonal ice rings.
(From )

Figure 6.  Water molecules (left) are more closely packed than ice molecules (right).

Because ice floats on water, Earth’s temperate freshwater bodies do not freeze solid and aquatic life is not killed off.  An ice cover prevents wind-induced mixing, and the warmer water remains protected beneath the ice. In this way, the ice cover allows aquatic organisms to survive in the lower layers of the lake, as long as there is water beneath the ice. But the capping effect of the surface ice over a freshwater aquatic ecosystem has repercussions.  Ice limits the amount of nutrients, energy, and oxygen that can enter the system, while preventing accumulated waste products from leaving the system.  Carbon dioxide levels can increase, pH can go down, and dissolved oxygen can be depleted.  When spring comes and the surface ice melts the water sinks toward the bottom, forcing nutrient-rich water and accumulated wastes toward the surface.  This vertical mixing, called turnover also occurs in the fall when water at the surface cools, becomes denser and sinks toward the bottom.  Turnover is an important process in freshwater ecology.

The density differential between water and ice also dictates temperature ranges below the ice.  Water temperatures below the ice are relatively stable.  Water is actually most dense at about 39°F (4°C).  When water temperature rises above or drops below 39°F, it will rise and float above the denser 39-degree water.  It is then closer to the colder surface where it can cool further and freeze, or cool back to 39°F and sink. The closeness of water’s freezing point to its temperature of maximum density results in a narrow temperature range in which aquatic plants and animals must survive. 

In oceans, because of the salt, seawater freezes at temperatures lower than 0°C.  When it does freeze into sea ice, most of the salt is excluded, but not all.  Salt has a different crystalline structure than ice; it is cubic (4 sided) and ice is hexagonal (6 sided).  Pockets of brine form within the ice, which do not freeze, due to the high salinity.  So, sea ice is still salty.  Not to be confused with icebergs, sea ice blankets millions of square kilometers and most of it forms and melts with the polar seasons.  Some sea ice is multi-year.  Many arctic mammals, such as Polar Bears, seals, and walruses, depend on the sea ice for their habitat. These species hunt, feed, and breed on the ice.

Figure 7. Ice floes and other forms of sea ice are less salty than the seawater from which they formed, owing to a process known as brine rejection. Yet sea ice still is too salty to be melted for human consumption. Only icebergs, which are derived from glaciers, are composed of fresh-water ice.

For more information about turnover in lakes visit

To learn more about the expansion of water upon freezing see

Look for additional information about sea ice at

Sources of Freshwater
Freshwater is defined as containing less than 1,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids, most often salt.  Polar ice caps, glaciers, precipitation, and clouds are all sources of freshwater. Approximately 70% of Earth’s freshwater can be found in perennial ice such as the giant ice sheets that blanket Greenland and Antarctica, smaller ice caps, and glaciers. This ice forms on land by compaction and recrystallization of snow under the weight of successive layers.  99% of perennial ice is found in the ice sheets, 91% in Antarctica alone.  Icebergs are pieces of continental ice that have broken off into the oceans.  Much discussion is ongoing concerning global warming and the disappearance of perennial ice, rising ocean levels, and destruction of habitat.

Much more information about ice sheets, ice caps, and glaciers can be found at

Precipitation occurs when clouds release water that falls to the Earth in the form of rain, freezing rain, sleet, hail, or snow.  Even though the atmosphere contains less than 0.04% of Earth’s freshwater, that amounts to a lot.  If all the water in the atmosphere were released at once, the Earth would be covered by about 1 inch of water.  Fortunately, this doesn’t happen, and water is released in a more measured way, dependent upon climatic conditions and geography.

For more information about precipitation, clouds, and the water cycle refer to
MS TIPS Benchmark P.8.A.2

Water in the Atmosphere
Water exists in the atmosphere as water vapor, clouds, and ice crystals.  Atmospheric water is responsible for making Earth’s climate habitable; it is an important greenhouse gas.  The average percentage of water vapor in the air by volume is about 2 to 3%.  Very arid and/or cold regions have very little water vapor.  In very warm and humid tropical air the percent of water vapor is about 4%.  Temperature limits how much water vapor air can contain; warmer air can hold more water vapor.  But, even in the tropics, where air temperatures are the greatest,  water starts to condense out of air when it approaches 4%.  If tropical temperatures were greater than they are, more water could exist as vapor in the atmosphere.

For more information about water vapor in the atmosphere see


Figure 8.  Atmospheric water vapor.

The Greenhouse Effect and Water Vapor
Approximately 50% of the sun’s incoming energy, much of which is in the visible and near-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, is absorbed by Earth’s surface.  This energy re-radiates from the surface as infrared radiation.  Earth’s atmosphere contains water vapor, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxide, methane and several other trace greenhouse gases that absorb that heat energy and re-radiate it, preventing it from totally escaping back into space.  This keeps our atmosphere at suitable temperatures for life.  This is called the Greenhouse Effect, because the atmosphere acts like the glass walls of a greenhouse, trapping heat.  This is a natural and necessary phenomenon.  Without a greenhouse effect our planet would be lifeless.


Figure 9.  About 50% of insolation reaches the surface.

For more information about the greenhouse effect and water vapor, see
MS TIPS Benchmark E.8.A.2

Clouds and Ice Crystals
Clouds are made of collections of water droplets and/or ice crystals that have condensed (deposited in the case of ice crystals) from water vapor in the air.  Two things must occur for vapor to condense.  The saturation point of the air must be reached, and there needs to be a solid for water vapor to condense onto.  Saturation point is when the water vapor at a particular temperature and pressure is at equilibrium with liquid water. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air and will have a higher amount of saturation. When warm, moist air rises and cools or encounters something cool, moisture will begin to condense out.  But the vapor needs a solid surface about which it can coalesce.  Small particles (aerosols) in the atmosphere called condensation nuclei provide this solid surface.

Figure 10.  Four examples of saturated air cooling to form clouds.

Water droplets or ice crystals in clouds can combine and grow to such a size that they fall to the ground as precipitation, or they evaporate back into vapor. 

Clouds are found in the lowest level of Earth’s atmosphere, the troposphere, being moved about by wind.  Besides providing a source of precipitation, clouds perform a role in the greenhouse effect by absorbing, scattering, and reflecting insolation.  There are various ways to classify clouds.  Generally, they are classified by their height in the atmosphere (at middle latitudes).  Cloud names derive from Latin and are descriptive of their appearance, location, or effect.  Stratus means “layer”, cumulus means “pile”, cirrus means “wispy”, nimbus means “pouring down rain”, and alto means “middle”.

For more information about cloud names see

High clouds, at 5,000 to 13,000 meters, include cirrus, cirrocumulus, and cirrostratus.  Middle clouds, at 2,000-7,000 meters, include altocumulus and altostratus.  Low clouds, below 2,000 meters, include stratus, stratocumulus, and nimbostratus.  Additionally, some are classified Clouds with Vertical Growth, like cumulus and cumulonimbus.  Lenticular, Kelvin-Helmholtz, and mammatus are Unusual Clouds, and contrails (condensation trails) are made by airplanes.

Figure 11.  Representatives of the various categories of clouds.

For more information about clouds investigate the following links;

This site “The Earth” is kid friendly and has very useful information concerning clouds and cloud types, can be found at

This site has some spectacular images of clouds and cloud types, to access it go to

For more information about clouds and the greenhouse effect, see
MS TIPS Benchmark E.8.A.2

For more information about clouds and layers of the atmosphere, see
MS TIPS Benchmark E.8.A.4

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Content Benchmark E.8.A.3

Students know the properties that make water an essential component of the earth system.  E/S

Common misconceptions associated with this benchmark

1. Students know that there is much less fresh water on Earth than there is ocean water, but they still seriously overestimate the percentage of fresh water that is available for human use.

When presented with graphics depicting over 97% of Earth’s water as saline and about 3% as fresh, students assume that the entire 3% must be available for our use.  They fail to consider the huge amounts of fresh water tied up in ice sheets, polar ice, and glaciers.  Further, they may see large weather events, such as hurricanes or floods, as evidence that a significant amount of Earth’s fresh water is in the atmosphere.  Part of the problem is the sheer size of the amounts involved.  It is difficult to think in terms of millions of cubic miles of water, for example.  

Further information about atmospheric water can be found at

Search this site for information and links concerning quantitative literacy at

2. Students mistakenly believe that ice floats because of the expansion of the molecules, rather than particle spacing.

Students can usually verify the fact that water expands upon freezing, and that ice floats, but their thinking about why can often be described as “fuzzy”.  Indeed, many adults have difficulty explaining it correctly.  An understanding of the structure of the water molecule – its polarity and its hydrogen bonding ability – is required.  One must be able to visualize the motions of water molecules as they slow and assume the hexagonal structure of ice; that they are electronically and geometrically forced to assume the open structure of ice.

For more information on the complexity of water and its properties visit

See this site for a short description of water’s electronegativity and hydrogen bonding characteristics

 3. Students feel that the greenhouse effect is bad, and that it and global warming are the same.

Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting polar ice, and Polar Bears in jeopardy… students may be confused about the complexity of the issues and the fact/myth interface.  A strong understanding of the role of the greenhouse effect in establishing and maintaining Earth’s climate is to be hoped for.  An appreciation of the question concerning natural rhythms of Earth processes and systems versus human-centered activities as causes for observed global warming is something that suits science inquiry discussions. 

For more information about climate change visit

See this site for details about the greenhouse effect

 4. Students think clouds form because cold air doesn’t hold as much water as warm air.

Students may lack the understanding that it is an equilibrium issue – water vapor and water are always moving between the two phases in the atmosphere. When equilibrium is reached, equal amounts of water is vaporizing and condensing.  At different temperatures, this is a different value.  When more water is condensing than vaporizing, cloud formation occurs.  Students may also erroneously believe that clouds are formed of water vapor when they are actually water droplets and/or ice crystals. 

For more information about saturated air and dew point visit

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Content Benchmark E.8.A.3

Students know the properties of water that make water an essential component of the earth system. E/S

Sample Test Questions

1st Item Specification: Understand that water exists in all three states of matter on Earth.

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Before evaporating, water found in the Colorado River, Lake Mead, and Lake Tahoe is in what phase?
    1. Solid
    2. Liquid
    3. Gas
    4. Plasma
  1. What phase is water in if it is found as a glacier?
    1. Gas
    2. Liquid
    3. Plasma
    4. Solid

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. A difference between freshwater and a glacier is that the freshwater has
    1. molecules that are moving slower.
    2. molecules that are moving faster.
    3. one part hydrogen and one part oxygen.
    4. one part hydrogen and two part oxygen.
  1. Which of the following describes the phase changes necessary to occur when water changes from: ocean waterglacier → fresh waterwater vapor?
    1. freezing → melting → freezing
    2. evaporating → freezing → melting
    3. melting → freezing → freezing
    4. freezing → melting → evaporating

2nd Item Specification: Understand why ice floats on water and its impact on aquatic life

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. A sheet of ice would float on a freshwater lake because ice
    1. is more dense than water.
    2. is less dense than water.
    3. has less volume.
    4. has less mass.
  1. What is the result when water freezes and turns to ice?
    1. It expands
    2. It compresses
    3. It is more dense
    4. It has less volume

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. What result will a melting ice sheet cause in the Arctic Sea?
    1. Increase in freshwater habitats
    2. Decrease of the sea level
    3. Loss of habitat for land species
    4. Gain of habitat for land species
  1. Answer the following question using the graph below.

  1. If the trend were to continue, how many species would exist in 140 sq. meters of ice?
    1. 15
    2. 13
    3. 11
    4. 09

3rd Item Specification: Know clouds, precipitation, glaciers and polar ice caps are all sources of freshwater

Depth of Knowledge Level 1

  1. Which of the following is NOT a source of freshwater on Earth?
    1. Glaciers
    2. Clouds
    3. Precipitation
    4. Oceans
  1. Which of the following would increase the available freshwater on Earth? Chose the BEST answer.
    1. Decreased evaporation of seawater
    2. Decreased temperatures
    3. Increased melting of pack ice
    4. Increased  precipitation

Depth of Knowledge Level 2

  1. Which of the following would result if polar ice caps, glaciers and icebergs melted? Choose the BEST answer.
    1. Increase the salinity of seawater
    2. Rise in the sea levels worldwide
    3. Change the temperature of the ocean
    4. Decrease the volume of ocean water
  1. Answer the following question using the data table, below.

Water Source

% of Total Water on Earth



Ice Caps/Glaciers




Surface Water





  1. Based on the data above, the majority of water on Earth exists as saltwater. Which water source would increase the most if ice caps and glaciers melt?
    1. Oceans
    2. Groundwater
    3. Surface water
    4. Atmosphere

Constructed Response E.8.A.3

  1. Use the graph below showing the phase changes of water to answer the questions.


    1.  Moving from point A to point F, describe in detail what happens to the spacing and movement of water molecules as heat is gradually added.  
    2.  Give a minimum of two specific examples of water on Earth at or below 0ºC, 50 ºC and at or above 100ºC. 

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Content Benchmark E.8.A.3

Students know the properties of water that make water an essential component of the earth system. E/S

Answers to Sample Test Questions

  1. B, DOK Level 1
  2. D, DOK Level 1
  3. B, DOK Level 2
  4. D, DOK Level 2
  5. B, DOK Level 1
  6. A, DOK Level 1
  7. C, DOK Level 2
  8. C, DOK Level 2
  9. D, DOK Level 1
  10. D, DOK Level 1
  11. B, DOK Level 2
  12. A, DOK Level 2

Constructed Response E.8.A.3 Score Rubric:

3 points

Response addresses all parts of the question clearly and correctly.

  1. Water as a solid at points A and B have molecules that are arranged in a more tightly packed pattern that limits the movement of the molecules. As the average energy or the temperature, increases, as is seen beginning at point C, the molecules are moving faster, and are father apart.  As point D is approached, and the water increased in temperature to 100 degrees Celsius, the molecules begin moving faster and becoming even further apart until they become water vapor at points E to F at which time the molecules are very fast moving and free of each other.
  2. Examples of water on Earth at 0ºC would be glaciers and icebergs; examples at 50 ºC would be lakes, rivers, oceans and groundwater; and examples at or above 100ºC would be water vapor such as evaporation or water as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

2 points

 Response addresses all parts of the question and includes only minor errors.

1 point

 Response does not address all parts of the question. 

0 points

 The response is totally incorrect or no response provided. 

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Content Benchmark E.8.A.3

Students know the properties that make water an essential component of the earth system.  E/S

Intervention Strategies and Resources

The following is a list of intervention strategies and resources that will facilitate student understanding of this benchmark.

1. RAFT – Resource Area for Teaching

Follow this link to a short and simple activity students can perform to demonstrate that ice has more volume than the water from which it came.  Students measure and then freeze a volume of water in a volumetric measure.  They can then calculate the % increase in the volume of the frozen water

To access this activity, go to

2. Weather Wiz Kids

This is both an informational site about clouds with links to all kinds of weather phenomena, and a resource for some fun and simple activities about condensation, clouds and fog.

 To access this site, go to

3. Enchanted Learning

This subscription website has a staggering amount of information available, in many subject areas, along with many, many activities.  Some are available without charge.  Booklets, worksheets, simple projects can be downloaded for use in the classroom.

To access this site, go to

USGS Water Science for Schools:  Water Cycle

This interactive site allows students to click on the water cycle and learn about each
component: stream flow, surface runoff, freshwater storage, ground-water discharge,     ground-water storage, infiltration, precipitation, snowmelt, runoff to streams, springs,
water in the atmosphere, evaporation, evapotranspiration, condensation, sublimation,
ice and snow, oceans.  There is a lot of information here, including printable diagrams, with and without labels, and links to other water cycle sites.

Access the site at

5. The EPA Climate Change Kids Site

The kids page focuses on the science and impacts of global warming or climate change, and
on actions that help address climate change.  It includes sections on weather & climate,  greenhouse effect, and other topics dealing with climate change.  Games, links, animations,
and teacher resources are also present.
The site can be found at

6. Watergames pages from Geography World Website.

This site lists dozens of games (flashcards, concentration, matching, word search, etc.), quizzes, and puzzles (mostly jigsaw) that are interactive.  They focus mostly on freshwater sources, and include lots of facts and trivia. 

This site is a part of the Geography World website and can be accessed at

 7. Weather One by the University of Illinois Extension

This weather watching site from the University of Illinois Extension office includes lessons on seasons, clouds, air, wind, global warming, and severe weather.  There are also activities, worksheets and a link to a site where students and teachers can sign up to become local backyard weather watchers.

For activities on clouds visit

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Support Pages

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Sample Questions:
Click Here

Intervention Strategies & Resources:
Click Here

Benchmark Related Vocabulary

Ground water
Water cycle