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Student Reading - The Unique Properties of Water

(The ensuing dicussion is adapted from Campbell, N.A. 1996. Biology (4th edition).
Benjamin/Cummings Publ. Co. Inc. Menlo Park, CA, USA.)

The Unique Structure of Water

Polarity of water molecules results in hydrogen bonding. The water molecule is relatively simple
in structure. Two hydrogen atoms are joined to a single oxygen atom by single covalent bonds.

Oxygen is more electronegative than the hydrogen atoms, which allows the electrons of the polar
bonds to spend more time closer to the oxygen side of the molecule. The oxygen side becomes more
negative in charge, and the hydrogen atoms have a slight positive charge. This forms the polar

The water molecule is shaped like an isosceles triangle, with a slight bond angle of 104.5 degrees at
the oxygen nucleus. The weak Coulombic characteristics of the bonding of hydrogen atoms to the
weakly electronegative oxygen atom result in both ionized and covalent states that simultaneously
maintain the integrity of water. Water is one of the only compounds that possess these

An electrostatic attraction occurs between the polar water molecules. The slight positive charged
hydrogen atom is attracted to the slight negative charged oxygen atom of another water molecule.
This weak attraction is called a hydrogen bond. Every water molecule is hydrogen bonded to its four
nearest neighbors.

Simple exercise to demonstrate the polar nature of water:

1. Fill a burette with tap water attached to a ring stand over a 400 ml beaker.

2. Rub an air filled balloon against a wool cloth.

3. Open the valve on the burette to allow a stream of water to flow into the beaker

4. Position the balloon near the stream of water.

Cohesion of Water Molecules

When water is in liquid form, its weak hydrogen bonds are about one-twentieth as strong as a
covalent bond. Hydrogen bonds constantly form and break. Each hydrogen bond lasts for a fraction
of a second, but the molecules continuously form new bonds with other water molecules around
them. At any time a large percentage of water molecules are bonded to neighboring water molecules
which gives water more structure than most other liquids. Collectively, the hydrogen bonds hold
water together by the property of cohesion.

Cohesion due to hydrogen bonding contributes to the formation of waves and other water
movements that occur in lakes. Water movements are integral components of the lake system and
play an important role in the distribution of temperature, dissolved gases, and nutrients. These
movements also determine the distribution of microorganisms and plankton.
Related to cohesion is surface tension, a measure of how difficult it is to stretch or break the
surface of a liquid. Water has a greater surface tension than all other liquids except mercury. At the
interface between water and air is an ordered arrangement of water molecules which are hydrogen
bonded to one another and the water below. The result is an interface surface or film under tension.
Students can observe the surface tension of water by overfilling a glass of water to the point where
water stands above the rim.

The air-water interface forms a special habitat for organisms adapted to living in this surface film.
This community is called the neuston. Water's high surface tension serves as a supporting surface
for many organisms. Many aquatic organisms have evolved adaptations that allow them to spread
their body weight over a large surface area to prevent breaking water's surface tension.

Water's Specific Heat

Water has a high heat capacity. Specific heat a measure of heat capacity, is the heat required to raise
the temperature of 1 gram of water 1°C. Water, with its high heat capacity, therefore, changes
temperature more slowly than other compounds that gain or lose energy.

The heat capacity of water stems directly from its hydrogen bonded structure. Although hydrogen
bonds are weak, their combined effect is enormous. As heat is added to ice or liquid water, the
energy first breaks hydrogen bonds, which allows the molecules to move freely. Since temperature
is a measure of the average kinetic energy of molecules (the rate at which they move), the
temperature of water rises slowly with the addition of heat. When the temperature of water drops
slightly, many additional hydrogen bonds form and release a considerable amount of energy in the
form of heat.

This resistance to sudden changes in temperature makes water an excellent habitat because
organisms adapted to narrow temperature ranges may die if the temperature fluctuates widely. The
heat requiring and heat retaining properties of water provide a much more stable environment than
is found in terrestrial situations. Fluctuations in water temperature occur very gradually, and
seasonal and diurnal extremes are small in comparison to terrestrial environments.

The high specific heat can have profound effects on climatic conditions of adjacent air masses.
When it warms only a few degrees, a large lake can absorb and store a huge amount of heat from the
sun in the daytime and summer. At night and during winter, the gradually cooling water can warm
the air. This is the reason Michigan and areas east of the Great Lakes have more moderate climates
than the Great Lakes region. Mild winters with higher precipitation rates and moist, cool summers
are common in Michigan and areas east of the Great Lakes.

Because of water's high specific heat, the water that covers most of the earth's surface keeps
temperature fluctuations within limits that allow living organisms to survive. Also, because
organisms consist mostly of water, they are more able to resist changes in their own temperatures.

Evaporation and Cooling

Water has a high heat of vaporization - the energy required to convert liquid water to a gas. Because
of the energy needed to break the hydrogen bonds holding a water molecule to its neighbors, more
energy is required to evaporate liquid water than most other substances. To evaporate each gram of
water at room temperature, about 580 calories of heat are needed, which is nearly double the
amount needed to vaporize a gram of alcohol or ammonia.

Water's high heat of vaporization helps moderate the earth's climate. A considerable amount of
energy from the sun is absorbed by lakes during the evaporation of its surface waters. As water
evaporates, the remaining surface water cools. This evaporative cooling occurs because the warmest
molecules are those with the greatest kinetic energy and are most likely to leave in the gaseous state.
Evaporative cooling of water contributes to the stabilization of temperature in lakes.

Water's Liquid Temperature Range

Water remains liquid over a wide temperature range, from 0 — 100°C. Most other substances
remain liquid over a narrower range. Since the chemical reactions of metabolism depend on
interactions between molecules moving about in liquid water, the limits of life are set by water's
freezing and boiling points. This property of water makes possible a wide variety of aquatic habitats.
Some fish species survive in temperatures at or near freezing while some bacteria and algae survive
in hot springs where the water temperature is near boiling.

Water as the Universal Solvent

Water is a substance that can almost dissolve anything. Salts such as sodium chloride (NaCl),
dissolve in water by dissociating as each ion becomes surrounded by the polar water molecules .
Shielded by a shell of water molecules, the ions stay in solution because they are no longer affected
by attractive forces from other ions.

Frozen Lake Density

Water is one of the few substances that are less dense as a solid than as a liquid. While most
substances contract when they solidify, water expands. This property is due to the hydrogen
bonding. When water is above 4 °C it behaves like other liquids; it expands as it warms and
contracts when it cools. Water starts to freeze when the temperature approaches 0°C and the
molecules no longer move vigorously enough to break their hydrogen bonds. As the temperature
reaches 0°C the water molecules become locked into a crystalline lattice, and each water molecule is
bonded to the maximum of four partners .

When the surface temperature in a lake reaches 0°C, ice forms and floats on top of the lake. The ice
becomes an insulating layer on the surface of the lake; it reduces heat loss from the water below and
enables life to continue in the lake. When ice absorbs enough heat for its temperature to increase
above 0°C, the hydrogen bonds can be broken and allow the water molecules to slip closer together.
If ice sank, lakes would be packed from the bottom with ice, and many of them would not be able to
thaw out, since the energy from the air and the sunlight does not penetrate very far.

Density Relationships of Water

A lake's physical, chemical, and metabolism dynamics are governed to a very great extent by
differences in density. The density of ice is almost ten times lighter than liquid water. Water's
density increases to a maximum at 3.98°C . Therefore, warmer waters are always found on top of
cooler water in lakes and produce layers of water called strata. This is typical of a lake that is
stratified during the summer. In winter the density differences in water cause a reverse
stratification where ice floats on top of warmer waters.
Questions on The Unique Properties of Water

Answer on a separate sheet of paper. Copy the question and then write
your answer in complete sentences.

1. What is polarity? What about a water molecule makes it a polar molecule?

2. What shape does a water molecule have? Draw what you think a water molecule
might look like.
3. If we were to do the “simple exercise to demonstrate the polar nature of water”
outlined in the article, what do you think would happen? Explain your answer
4. How long does a Hydrogen bond last?
5. How does the constant bonding and breaking apart of water molecules contribute to
6. How does cohesion impact the movement of water?
7. What is surface tension?
8. Give one example of surface tension in action that is not in the article?
9. What is the only liquid with greater surface tension than water?
10.How do aquatic organisms keep from breaking water’s surface tension?
11.What is specific heat?
12.The article says that water has a high specific heat, does this mean that it is easy or
difficult to change the temperature of water?
13.What is temperature a measure of?
14.Why does water’s resistance to change in temperature make it a good habitat?
15.How can a large lake impact the climate of an area? What region in North Carolina
has a similar situation? Explain.
16.What characteristic allows organisms to resist changes in their own body
17.What is heat of vaporization? How much heat is required to evaporate a gram of
water at room temperature?
18.How does the wide range of temperatures that water exists as a liquid at contribute
to the diversity of life on Earth?
19.What does it mean that water is the “Universal Solvent”? List five things that you
regularly dissolve in water?
20.What allows solid water (ice) to be less dense than liquid water?
21.How does ice on a lake surface allow life to continue in the water below?
22.What would happen if ice sank?
23. At what temperature does water reach its maximum density?
24.What are strata?
25.Describe reverse stratification in a lake.