The Wonder of Water

Because many of us still believe we have unlimited amounts of it, most Canadians don?t think much about water. We turn on the tap and expect it to flow. Because water is one of the most familiar of all substances, it doesn?t usually occur to us that it is also one of the most amazing. We forget that water is exotic. If you were to outline the characteristics of water without naming the substance you are describing, it would be very difficult for most people to believe that a single substance could exhibit all the remarkable qualities you ascribed. Yet we let it run out of the tap without thinking about it. Though we know its chemical composition and many of its obvious qualities, even experts have trouble determining how and why it acts in such a startling array of ways. Even though its availability is central to almost every aspect of our lives, we are blissfully content to allow our entire being to revolve around a substance that we barely understand. It is as if we live in the midst of a great mystery we have given up trying to solve. The more you know about water the more astounding the world seems. The more familiar one becomes with this substance, the clearer it becomes that our lives are completely defined by what water is and what water does.

Water truly does exhibit amazing qualities. Most of the other substances that exist on Earth possess a narrow range of more or less commonly predictable traits. Most are solid and, except under great extremes of temperature or pressure, don?t change. Not water. Water is different. It constantly changes form. It can exist in a three states simultaneously within tiny ranges of temperature and pressure. Water is contradictory. In the same moment it can be soft as a cloud and as hard as a glacier. Water gets around. It can be in the air at dawn and in the river at dusk. You have to pay attention to water. It can refresh you one minute and drown you the next. In one iteration it is soft as a raindrop. In another it can smash you to bits. Water is the ultimate shape-shifter. You can reach for it only to have it evaporate beyond your grasp. It can be there and not be there. Simultaneously it can be present and past.

Though water informs almost all of our perceptions about what liquids are supposed to be like, water is a very unlikely liquid indeed. One of the ways in which it is truly different is in its response to cold. Cooling of other liquids makes them denser. Unlike other liquids, water is not densest when it is coldest but at a temperature four degrees above its freezing point. As every home thermometer indicates, water freezes at 32° F. or 0° C, but it doesn?t achieve its greatest density until it reaches 39° F. or 4° C. You might not think that such a big deal unless, of course, you lived on Earth. It is this anomalous property of water that makes and keeps our planet habitable.

The implications of water?s expansive response to cold are profound. They are also global. If water didn?t expand when it froze, rivers, lakes and streams would not freeze over in winter. Instead they would turn to ice from the bottom up. One day your favourite lake would be fluid, the next day it would solid as a rock. There would be no life in our northern lakes. No lake trout, no cutthroat, no whitefish, no char. Ice would never disappear from some northern rivers. There would be no place for salmon to spawn. There would be no great annual northward bird migration. Our polar seas would freeze from the bottom up. Ocean currents would no longer be able to transport the warmth of the tropics to the planet?s latitudinal extremes. There would be no temperate zones. We would have to melt water to survive winter and winter it might eternally be. All of the world?s life would be huddled together on the equatorial bulge of the Earth.

Life on Earth has evolved in direct response to the fact that water responds unlike other liquids to cold. It can be said that water becomes its full self when it freezes. Because it is lighter, frozen water rides on its heavier liquid form. It can be said that it was water that made the first bridge. Water also made the first boat. But even as a solid, water never forgets its fluid self. Even the thickest ice flows. That this is so has had astounding consequences for our continent and for the world.

There is a reason we feel different when we are in the presence of large volumes of water. Water reacts to almost everything and almost everything reacts to water. The feeling you get standing on the edge of river or a lake or beneath a thundering waterfall may be aesthetic but it is physical, too. Your body is aligning itself with the molecular attraction of the water and the water is aligning itself to you. The effect can be even more pronounced when you stand by the sea. Ankle deep in surf, the water in our inner cellular seas yearns for the salty sea without. The water within us feels the tug of the tide. We know water, but water also knows us.

Go to the kitchen. Turn on your tap. Let the water run. Feel the cool moisture of wind and the wetness of cloud and rain. Feel the cold of snow and the hardness of glacier ice. Hear thunder. Feel the river flow through your hands. Feel the water within you yearn for the water without. Fill a glass. Bring it to your lips. Search with your tongue for water?s memory of far-away seas. Taste distant mountains. Feel the fissures in deep limestone tingle on your tongue. Hold the glass up to sunlight. See our star burn through the sparkling lens made of the most amazing of all liquids. Drink. Repeat daily until fully and finally restored.

Bob Sandford is the Chair of the United Nations International Year of Fresh Water and Wonder of Water initiative in Canada. This is the first in a series of seven articles excerpted from his book Water And Our Way of Life. For further information visit