Water is the essence of life on Earth and dominates the chemical composition of all organisms. “The ubiquity of water in biota as the fulcrum of biochemical metabolism rests on its unique physical and chemical properties,” says Robert G. Wetzel, scientist and author of the textbook Limnology (2001). Water is unique. And mysterious. It is the only natural substance found in all three physical states (liquid, solid, and gas) at temperatures normally found on Earth.
Water’s unique thermal-density properties, its high specific heat, viscosity, and liquid-solid characteristics ensure that life thrives. If not for these properties, north temperate lakes would ice up completely in winter, killing virtually all its aquatic life; lakes around the world would not mix and stratify, and fail to provide essential nutrients to aquatic biota. Water’s transformative properties are in fact quite remarkable. Water can exist in its liquid form, freeze, melt, evaporate, heat, sublimate and combine with many elements. Water is a shape-shifter.
Chemically, water is simply two atoms of hydrogen joined in covalent bonds to one of oxygen. For something so “simply” made, water is pretty complex; the configuration of its building blocks produces a molecule with unusual and almost magical properties (Environment Canada, 2010).
Water is a universal solvent. It can dissolve a large variety of chemical substances like salts, other ionic compounds, and polar covalent compounds such as alcohols and organic acids. It transports all kinds of things from the sediment of the Nile River to the oxygenated blood cells in your arteries. It is the most cohesive among the non-metallic liquids.
At the heart of water’s unique properties lies its atomic structure, how it bonds and aggregates. The nuclei of water molecules vibrate constantly, forming isosceles triangles at equilibrium. Water is a dipole and acts like a magnet to form a quasi-stable polymer with oxygen having a negative charge and the hydrogen end having a positive charge. The charged ends attract other water molecules and other polar molecules, which is how substances become dissolved in water. Weak Coulombic bonds of hydrogen to the weakly electronegative oxygen atom create both ionized and covalent states, maintaining the integrity of water simultaneously (Wetzel, 2001) In a tetrahedron shape. Water is pretty well the only known compound that possesses these characteristics.
Most transformative matter contracts when cooled and becomes denser in its solid state. Water does the opposite; it expands (below 4°C) and in its solid state (as ice) becomes less dense, which is why ice floats over liquid water. Water’s boiling point is also much higher than most compounds of similar weight. Water packs and stores energy and heat extremely well, which helps moderate the temperature on Earth. Large water bodies, like the Great Lakes or the oceans, influence climate, providing heat reservoirs and exchangers and the source of moisture that falls as rain and snow over land.
The association and transformation of water molecules through its solid, liquid and gaseous phases is still not entirely understood. Water molecules are stabilized by strong hydrogen bonds, accounting for water’s high boiling point and its ability to absorb heat. Water absorbs and releases more heat than most substances for each degree of temperature increase or decrease.
When liquid water freezes, it forms an open latticework of tetrahedrons, with every oxygen atom at the center of four oxygen atoms. Every water molecule is hydrogen-bonded to its four nearest neighbors, forming “holes” with intermolecular cohesion. The increased volume decreases the density, which allows ice to float on liquid water. When ice melts, the bonds rupture and fill in the open spaces, increasing the density. Maximum density is reached at 4°C. At higher temperatures the liquid expands enough to lower density again. This is why lakes don’t freeze through completely; the denser water sinks before it can reach the zero temperature to form ice.
The regulation of physical and chemical dynamics of lakes and their metabolism is governed largely by differences in density. Planktonic and floating aquatic organisms and nutritive particles depend on water movement for their passive locomotion. Much of a lake’s water movement—and its planktonic life—is influenced by temperature-mediated density-related changes in viscosity.
The specific heat (the amount of heat in calories required to raise the temperature 1°C of a unit weight of a substance) of liquid water is very high at 1.0 (Wetzel, 2001). This means that it can absorb a lot of heat before it begins to get hot. Its high heat-requiring and heat- retaining characteristics make water more stable than terrestrial environments and contribute to a thermal inertia of the hydrosphere. An example of this is the Gulf Stream’s tempering effects on climate in Europe.
Water has a very high surface tension. In other words, it’s sticky and elastic and tends to clump together in drops rather than spread out in a think film (like rubbing alcohol). Surface tension measures the strength of the water’s surface film and the strong attraction between the water molecules creates a strong film. The surface tension lets water hold up substances heavier and denser than itself.
Surface tension is essential for the transfer of energy from wind to water to create waves. Waves are necessary for rapid oxygen diffusion in lakes and seas.
Water can create enormous pressure in pores and capillaries. In a seed it reaches 400 atmospheres at the moment of germination, permitting the seedling to break through asphalt.
Surface tension—and adhesion—is also responsible for capillary action, which allows water (and its dissolved nutrients) to move through the roots of plants and through the small blood vessels in our bodies. The air-water interface forms a unique habitat for neuston, organisms adapted to living in surface film. Excessive dissolved organic material reduces surface tension of water and compromises this unique community.
Scientific studies have begun to show some astonishing properties and behaviors of water. One is that water reacts to cosmic phenomena. Laboratory studies with water have shown that it is not always the same. Studies have revealed that water is influenced by shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field or by explosions on the Sun. Of course, most of us know about how the Earth’s great water bodies respond to the movements of the Moon around the Earth in the oceanic tides and the seiches of the Great Lakes. But we are learning that water is far more sensitive and responsive than most people ever imagined. And some suspect that water responds to and is interconnected in some way with all that exists in the cosmos.
Many researchers, scientists and wellness practitioners agree that frequency affects—if not in fact directs—the manifestation and eradication of disease. Beneficial frequencies have been identified, the same ones found in the Earth and in the Earth’s minerals. Just sitting on a granite boulder on a sunny day sends pulsating frequencies flowing through your body. Water intensifies the flow and can actually heal.
In the foreword to his book Understanding Water, Andreas Wilkens writes that water is “a substance which so well hides the consequence of our actions upon it. And which is seemingly so plentiful.” The consequences of our actions simply flow away. It is an unfortunate reality that most of us have remained indifferent to the effects of our actions on water. Perhaps this is because water according to Wilkens “is a master of concealment, withdrawing from so many phenomena, appearing in that which it simultaneously transforms: in the colors of the heavens, or the reflection of a shore on the surface of a lake. The more intensely it participates in a particular phenomenon, the more hidden it remains.” If things are defined by their behavior then water is an altruist.
So, what is water, really?
Water is magic…
This article is an excerpt from “Water Is...” (Pixl Press, 2016) Now available as print and ebook.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.