Springs: Definition, Formation & Types

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  • 0:06 What Is a Spring?
  • 0:42 Springs Form From Aquifers
  • 2:02 Types of Springs
  • 3:54 Sizes of Springs
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

In this video lesson, you will learn about springs and how they form. You will also understand how springs are classified based on how they flow as well as how strongly they flow.

What Is a Spring?

I'll bet that if you look at a bottle of water, it claims to be 'natural spring' water. While this may or may not be true, what exactly do they mean by 'spring'? A spring is a place where water naturally flows out of the ground. This comes from the German word 'springer,' which means 'to leap from the ground.'

One reason you may want to be skeptical about that 'natural spring' source is that springs are not common enough on Earth to support the enormous bottled water industry. In fact, while they are an important part of both the water cycle and the ecosystems they're found in, they're actually somewhat rare.

Springs Form From Aquifers

In another lesson, we learned about groundwater, which is water below Earth's surface. Groundwater is stored in aquifers, which are underground water reservoirs. Aquifers hold billions of gallons of water and feed water bodies on the surface, like lakes and rivers. However, because they're so large and can hold so much water, it can also take thousands of years for aquifers to recharge if the water is removed in large quantities.

There are two types of aquifers: confined and unconfined. Confined aquifers are sandwiched between two layers of low permeability soil. This means that the water coming into the ground does not flow directly into or out of the aquifer since the soil around it doesn't allow much water to pass through. All aquifers are at least partially unconfined aquifers because they wouldn't be filled with water if they didn't have a source feeding them! These aquifers are underneath permeable soil layers, so water easily trickles through the ground into the aquifer.

A spring is formed when the pressure in an aquifer causes some of the water to flow out at the surface. This usually happens at low elevations, along hillsides or at the bottom of slopes. Some springs are just tiny trickles of water seeping from the ground, while others are large enough that they create rivers or lakes.

Types of Springs

Springs are named for how they flow, and there are five main types. The first type of spring is a gravity spring. This is just what it sounds like - these form from the pull of gravity. The water gets pulled down through the ground until it reaches a layer it can't penetrate. Because it has nowhere else to go, it starts flowing horizontally until it reaches an opening and water comes out as a spring. These are usually found along hillsides and cliffs.

Next, we have artesian springs, which come from pressure in confined aquifers forcing the water to the surface. The pressure inside the confined aquifer (from being smooshed between those impermeable layers) is less than the pressure outside the aquifer, so the water moves in that direction. Any cracks or holes in the land will easily let the water escape.

Our next type of spring is a seepage spring, which as you may have guessed, is groundwater seeping out at the surface. Seepage springs slowly let water out through loose soil or rock and are often found in land depressions or low in valleys.

The fourth type of spring is a tubular spring. These springs occur in underground cave systems, which resemble underground highways. These tubes, or channels, are made of limestone, and as water moves through this type of rock, it dissolves some of it away. Tubular springs are some of the largest springs on Earth, and the tubes themselves can be so small that you can't see them or large enough to walk through!

Finally, we have fissure springs. Fissures are just large cracks, so you can probably figure out that fissure springs occur along large cracks in the ground, like fault lines. Fissure springs are often used as a source of drinking water, and sometimes scientists go looking for fissure springs when they want to find a fault on Earth!

Sizes of Springs

Not only do springs come in different forms, but they also come in different sizes. They are classified based on how much water they discharge, called the magnitude. There are eight magnitudes used to classify springs, one being the largest and eight being the smallest. 1st magnitude springs put out an incredible amount of water - more than 100 cubic feet per second! That means that every second, that spring is pumping out more than 100 1 foot x 1 foot x 1 foot cubes of water, or 64.6 million gallons of water per day. That's a lot!

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