The USGS Water Science School
Water Science School pages
The Water Cycle
USGS Water data:
Rain and Precipitation
Care to take a guess at how many gallons of water fall when 1 inch of rain falls on 1 acre of land?
Find out how many gallons of rain falls by using our Interactive Rainfall Calculator
Rain and snow are key elements in the Earth's water cycle, which is vital to all life on Earth. Rainfall is the main way that the water in the skies comes down to Earth, where it fills our lakes and rivers, recharges the underground aquifers, and provides drinks to plants and animals.
Thundershowers over Yellowstone Lake, Montana, USA
Fortunately for everyone, water is a renewable resource that moves in a cycle with neither beginning nor end (but, you can put in your vote as to where you think it begins...). Water vapor (evaporated from oceans, lakes, forests, fields, animals, and plants) condenses and returns to Earth as precipitation, once again replenishing reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and other sources of water and providing the moisture required by plants and animals.
The amount of precipitation that falls around the world may range from less than 0.1 inch per year in some deserts to more than 900 inches per year in the tropics. One of the driest spots on Earth is Lquique, Chile, where no rain fell for 14 years. The world's wettest spot, as shown by data collected from a rainfall gage operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, is on Mt. Waialeale, Hawaii, where an average of more than 451 inches of rain falls each year, and where more than 642 inches fell from July 1947 to July 1948. Although Mt. Waialeale averages slightly more rain per year, Cherrapunji, India, holds the single year record of 905 inches measured in 1861.
By contrast, the conterminous (48) United States receives enough precipitation during an average year to cover the States to a depth of about 30 inches. This is equivalent to about 1,430 cubic miles of water each year. What happens to the water after it reaches the ground depends upon many factors such as the rate of rainfall, topography, soil condition, density of vegetation, temperature, and the extent of urbanization.
Wide spread flooding in Lithia Springs, Georgia just west of downtown Altanta, after epic rainfall, 22 Sept. 2009. Impervious surfaces and urban buildup causes rainfall to runoff much quicker, and with greater flooding consequences, during heavy rains.
For example, the direct runoff in a highly urbanized area is relatively great, not only because of the density of roofs and impermeable pavements permits less rain to infiltrate the ground, but also because storm-sewer systems carry more water directly to the streams and lakes. In a more natural or undeveloped area, the direct runoff would be considerable less.
In the United States, an average of some 70 percent of the annual precipitation returns to the atmosphere by evaporation from land and water surfaces and by transpiration from vegetation. The remaining 30 percent eventually reaches a stream, lake, or ocean, partly by overland runoff during and immediately after rain, and partly by a much slower route by moving though the ground.
Much of the rain that enters the ground filters down into subsurface water-bearing rocks (aquifers) and eventually reaches lakes, streams, and rivers where these surface-water bodies intercept the aquifers. The portion of the precipitation that reaches the streams produces an average annual streamflow in the United States of approximately 1,200 billion gallons a day. By comparison, the Nations's homes, farms, and factories withdraw and use about 400 billion gallons a day.
How much water falls during a rainstorm?
Have you ever wondered how much water falls onto your yard during a rainstorm? Using a 1-inch rainstorm as an example, the table below gives example of how much water falls during a storm for various land areas.
Consider for a moment how much rainwater some cities may receive during a year. For example, Atlanta, Ga. averages about 45 inches of precipitation per year; multiplying this by the 2.293 billion gallons shown in the table as the number of gallons in 1 inch reveals that some 103.2 billion gallons of water fall on Atlanta in an average year. In a city the size of Atlanta, the per capita water use is about 110 gallons per day or 40,150 gallons per year. Thus, the water from a year's precipitation, if it could be collected and stored without evaporation loss, would supply the needs of about 2,574,000 people.
Use our handy rainfall calculator! Find out how much rain falls on your roof or yard, in your city block, or town.
When it rains, where does it go?
Once on the land, rainfall either seeps into the ground or becomes runoff, which flows into rivers and lakes. What happens to the rain after it falls depends on many factors such as:
Water Equivalents (approximate)
The following equivalents show the relationship between the volume and weight of water and between the volume and speed of flowing water.
Volume and weight
Rate of flow (in a stream)
Information on this page is from Rain, A Water Resource (Pamphlet), U.S. Geological Survey, 1988