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What are the Different Types of Surface Water that Cover the Earth?

Updated on February 28, 2013

Did you know that more than 70% of the Earth’s surface is comprised of water? Water is an abundant substance that exists in nearly every nook and cranny of the globe. When storms bring precipitation to the land, the water begins to runoff and collect in the ground’s natural depressions. These topographic low spots form many of the types of bodies of water that we see and hear about everyday. But are you aware that there are many types of hydrographic landforms that exist beyond the typical river, lakes, and oceans?

All hydrographic landforms can be categorized into two main groups: Lotic and Lentic. Bodies of water that convey water in a continuous and definite direction are called lotic waters. Bodies of water that tend to store water are called lentic waters. These landforms include lakes, ponds, and wetlands. Here is a brief list of the many types of words used to describe natural water features around the globe.


Water Conveyance Landforms (Lotic Bodies of Waters)

Brook - These are the smallest natural channels however there really is no size distinction between a Brook or a creek.

Creek - Creeks are often larger than brooks. Creeks may have a permanent source of water or may be intermittent.

Wash - A wash is the name usually given to a creek that is normally dry. These water features are ephemeral (meaning that water flows in them only after a rain) and usually feed into larger streams or rivers.

Stream - Larger creeks are sometimes called streams, but again there is no clear distinction between the two. Streams can also may have a permanent source of water or may be intermittent and typically feed into larger streams and rivers.

River - A river is the largest of all of the natural channels. Rivers are typically fed by many smaller streams or even lakes. Water flow is often perennial though it can also be permanent or intermittent.

Delta - A delta is a low, watery land formed at the mouth of a river. This is the area where a river or stream empties into a large body of water such as a lake or ocean. Deltas are known for their signature triangular shape and distributary flow pattern. This pattern is formed from the sediments that are deposited in the delta.

Channel - A channel is similar to a strait except it is usually smaller. It can is also a part of a river that is navigable. Channels are typically straight and somewhat uniform in shape making them very accommodating for boat traffic. Another key feature that separates a channel from a strait is that water is usually being conveyed through a channel whereas it is more or less being stored in a strait. An example of a channel is the English Channel.

Waterfall - A waterfall exists when a river, stream, or other lotic water body discharges water over a cliff or steep incline.


Water Storage Landforms (Lentic Bodies of Waters)

Lake - The word lake is a generic term that refers to any accumulation of water surrounded by land. Lakes are generally considered to be "large" in size but not as large as oceans. However, the term "large" is used loosely because there is no number that separates lakes from other lentic bodies of water such as ponds. Also lakes typically only contain freshwater.

Pond - In general, ponds tend to be smaller and/or shallower than lakes, however there are numerous examples of "ponds" that are larger and deeper than "lakes."

Sea - A sea is essentially the same thing as a large lake except that it contains salt water instead of freshwater. However, there are exceptions to this rule as well. The Sea of Galilee for instance is actually a freshwater lake. A sea can also be part of an ocean because the boundary between it and the larger water body can sometimes be arbitrary. There are also more than 50 named seas recognized in today's world.

Ocean- An ocean is the largest body of water of all. This also makes it easy to name them all. There are only 5 oceans on Earth - The Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Indian, and the Southern oceans.

Cove - Coves are the small indentations of land near a lake, sea, or ocean. They are typically areas that have a horseshoe shape and are shielded from the stronger currents in the parent body of water

Bay - A bay is larger than a cove and can refer to any body of water that is partly enclosed by land. Bays are typically large enough to house a large number of man made features such as boats and marinas.

Gulf - A gulf is essentially a very large bay and is typically a part of an ocean. There are many gulfs around the world such as the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf of California.

Lagoon - Any lake or pond that is directly connected to a larger body of water can be called a lagoon. They are typically located along a coast.

Strait - A strait is a narrow strip of water that separates two larger bodies of water. A key feature of a strait is that it is navigable. There are several straits including the Straits of Magellan and the Strait of Gibralter. Depending on their location, a strait can be characterized as being either a lentic or lotic water body.

Fjord - A fjord is a long, narrow sea inlet that is bordered by steep cliffs. Fjords are often the result of glacial activity formed when a glacier cuts a valley through the surrounding rock. Most fjords areactually deeper than the adjacent sea or ocean that fills it.

Marsh - A marsh is a type of freshwater, brackish water or saltwater wetland that is found along rivers, pond, lakes and coasts.

Swamp - A swamp is a type of freshwater wetland than has a lot of muddy, shallow water. Swamps are usually overgrown with many trees and shrubs.

These are just some of the most common words used to describe bodies of water. In fact, if you read through Wikipedia or the dictionary you will probably find at least 100 more!


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    • starstream profile image

      Dreamer at heart 4 years ago from Northern California

      Interesting definitions about water on earth! I have yet to see a fjord except on television of course. Our water is such a valuable resource and we need more focus on the conservation projects in our local states.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 4 years ago from Pasadena CA

      This was a good idea for a hub. I'm sure many readers have heard of these terms, but may not have known the difference between some of them. Like how common is it for someone to know what a "wash" is? You know how I knew? I used to read cowboy fiction when I was young, where outlaws always used to hide in the wash. (lol)