Chapter 3

The Properties of Water

To better understand what a wonder water is, it’s helpful to consider the amazing properties of water. These properties are so unusual that the finding of many scientists is the rather unscientific conclusion that water is simply “weird.” Students of this amazing substance have actually listed 38 anomalies of water—ways that water differs from what’s expected. And it’s these differences that make water so significant.

Density. The almost universal behavior for liquids is that when they get cooler, they become more dense, until their molecules virtually stand still. They freeze in their most dense state. Not water. What happens with water is that while it does get denser as it gets colder, when it reaches about 38° F the process stops. And when the temperature drops just six more degrees, it quickly expands and then freezes. That’s why ice floats. And it’s a good thing. If it didn’t do this, ice would form on the bottom of bodies of water—gradually building up until all life in the water was destroyed. This would in turn eventually destroy all life on earth. It’s this same process that helps create the wonders that fascinate us every winter: the latticework of frost, the symmetry of snowflakes, and the light blanket of white that dazzles our eyes on cold sunny days.

The 19th-century preacher and author George MacDonald, who became the inspiration for many of C. S. Lewis’ writings, was fascinated by nature—and by water in particular. He wrote the following reflection on ice crystals:

I walked home one winter’s Sunday morning after church. It was a lovely day. The sun shone so warm that you could not help thinking of what God would be able to do before long— draw primroses and buttercups out of the earth by force of sweet persuasive influences. But in the shadows lay fine webs of laces of ice, so delicately lovely that one could not but be glad of the cold that made the water able to please itself by taking such graceful forms. And I wondered over again, for the hundredth time, what could be the principle which, in the wildest, most lawless, fantastically chaotic, apparently capricious, work of nature, always kept it beautiful. The beauty of holiness must be at the heart of it somehow, I thought. Because our God is so free from stain, so loving, so unselfish, so good, so altogether what He wants us to be, so holy, therefore all His works declare Him in beauty; His fingers can touch nothing but to mold it into loveliness; and even the play of His elements is in grace and tenderness of form (Discovering The Character Of God, edited by Michael Phillips, Bethany House, 1989, pp.117-118).

Cohesion. The way the water molecule is formed and the nature of the elements from which it’s made result in creating a liquid with a surface “skin.” It’s this skin that dimples under the feet of the fascinating spider-like water strider, spreads its widening wake behind the zooming little water-boatman beetle, and forms the concentric circles advancing outward from the impact point of a child-thrown stone. Even a sewing needle can be made to float on the cohesive surface of water. This cohesion, or surface tension, also makes water form the droplets so vital to other life processes—especially important to the form and function of the living cell.

Adhesion. While cohesion causes water molecules to stick together, adhesion helps water stick to other things. We experience this when we try to separate stacked glass tumblers that have virtually bonded themselves with a thin layer of water. It takes an amazing amount of pull to accomplish the task. Many a mom has scars to indicate that some of these attempts have negative consequences!

It’s this same adhesive force that creates capillarity: the ability of water to climb narrow tubes. Cohesion and adhesion in tandem make water molecules sort of reach up and grab the sides of a tube, and seemingly in defiance of gravity, pull themselves upward, while at the same time they reach down and grab fellow molecules and pull them along. It’s this property that allows water to move up through living plants and move the way blood moves through the capillaries of our bodies.

Temperature Control. Water is the earth’s thermostat and the human body’s thermal regulator. What it does in relationship to heat is astounding in many ways. The key wonder is that given the behavior of other similar substances, water would be expected to become a gas at room temperature. Life exists because it doesn’t. Some water, however, does escape the surface of its liquid state and become vapor through the process of e-vapor-ation. Evaporation cools the surface area where it occurs. How it does this is itself a wonder: Heat applied to the surface of water causes the top molecules to “dance” with the higher temperature— like barefoot kids trying to cross a hot asphalt road on a summer day. Eventually these heat-energized molecules vaporize, rising like hot air balloons. This leaves behind the cooler molecules, lowering the temperature of the body from which it has escaped.

Water also stores heat extremely well and gives it up reluctantly. Those of us who live in the Great Lakes region of the United States are well aware of the result of this factor in the winter: “lake-effect” snow. Water vapor rises from the surface of the heat-retaining large lakes and condenses into snowflakes in the drier subfreezing air. Prevailing winds move the subsequent snow clouds over land where they drop their crystal load—sometimes all within a few short miles. Longtime residents of Buffalo, New York, can testify of the “vertical blizzards” that have many times left them struggling through chest-high snow to reach the curbside white mounds that mark the spot where they need to start digging for their cars.

Water’s ability to store heat and then hold it is just one more way that it supports life on earth. If it didn’t make up nearly 80 percent of the earth’s surface and didn’t store heat, the earth’s temperature fluctuation would become so extreme that all life would quickly cease to exist.

Dissolver. Water is called the universal solvent. Virtually all the naturally occurring elements have been found dissolved in water, from sodium to gold. And it’s clearly no accident that the most common elements in water are the most common elements in the human body. Of all the work that water does in, around, and for people, one of its most important jobs is its capacity to carry to every human cell the dissolved nutrients and critical components we need to live and remain healthy.

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