A recent column on "The Straight Dope" website discussed the idea that water molecules are largely cycled around through the water cycle, and that therefore the water molecules that come out of your tap could have been drunk (and excreted) by the dinosaurs. Cecil Adams (the author) points out a few flaws with this argument, namely that we've been burning fossil fuels for a couple of centuries and releasing water into the atmosphere, and that liquid water is constantly dissociating and reforming; so it's not strictly true to say that every water molecule on Earth has been around since the time of the dinosaurs.

One thing that occurred to me in reading this article is that biological processes have also been consuming and producing water for many millions of years now; this would be another mechanism by which water molecules can be "reshuffled". Is is possible to estimate how much water participates in these processes (per annum)? I know that there are estimates out there about how much carbon dioxide is produced/consumed by the biosphere, for example, but I'm not sure whether one can straightforwardly extrapolate from "carbon consumed" to "water consumed," and I don't know if there are other significant metabolic processes that consume/produce water molecules.


1 Answer 1


The lifetime of a water molecule is less than 1 millisecond, in the sense that two particular protons will not remain bonded to same oxygen ion for longer than that order of time. Also, the protons of water are constantly exchanging with protons of other molecules and ions, such as alcohols, amines, carboxylic acids, bicarbonate, and countless acids. So it would only make sense to discuss the rate at which the oxygen atoms of water become atoms of another substance (beyond just hydroxide or hydronium) such as dioxygen or sugar.

For photosynthesis, one molecule of water is consumed for each molecule of carbon dioxide. The link says that about 110 billion tons of carbon undergoes photosynthesis per year and since a water molecule is 1.5 times the mass of a carbon atom, this means 160 billion tons of water consumed in photosynthesis.

So at a minimum, biological processes destroy and create 160 billion tons of water per year (on the basis of whether an oxygen atom is or isn't part of a water molecule).


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .