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High Specific Heat of Water

High Specific Heat of Water

Have you ever burned your tongue after drinking hot coffee that you thought had sufficiently cooled down? Have you ever tried cooking pasta in a rush and wondered why it takes so long for the water to boil? The reason it takes so long for water (or coffee, which is made of mostly water) to change temperature is something called the specific heat of water.

Here, we will discuss what specific heat of water means, why hydrogen bonding leads to a high specific heat, and what are examples in which we see this particular property.

What is the specific heat of water?

The quantity of heat that must be taken in or lost for one gram of material so that its temperature changes by one degree Celsius is referred to as specific heat.

The equation below shows the link between heat transferred (Q) and temperature change (T):

In this equation, m represents the substance's mass (to which the heat is being transferred to or from) whereas the value c represents the specific heat of the substance.

Water has one of the highest specific heat among common material substances at approximately 1 calorie/gram °C = 4.2 joule/gram °C.

High specific heat of water and other examples

For reference, Figure 1 below compares the specific heat of water with other common substances.

SubstanceSpecific heat (J/g °C)
Water4.2
Wood1.7
Iron 0.0005
Mercury0.14
Ethyl alcohol2.4

Figure 1. This table compares water with several common substances in terms of their specific heat.

Because water has a high specific heat capacity, it takes a lot of energy to create temperature changes. It's why coffee takes a long time to cool down, or why "a watched pot never boils." It's also why it takes a long time for the environment to respond to external changes.

When a specific quantity of excess carbon dioxide (CO2) is added to the atmosphere, for example, it takes time for warming impact on the air, land, and ocean to become fully apparent. Even if there were a means to directly add heat to the Earth (which is made up largely of water), it would take time for the temperatures to rise.

This means that the ocean can absorb a significant amount of heat before its temperature increases significantly. Similarly, when an external source of energy is removed, the ocean responds slowly and its temperature will not begin to fall immediately.

Put simply, the high specific heat capacity of water allows it to maintain a stable temperature, which is very crucial in sustaining life on Earth.

What is the relationship between the high specific heat of water and its chemical bond?

Water is made up of two hydrogen atoms connected by polar covalent bonds to one oxygen atom. When valence electrons are shared mutually by two atoms, it is referred to as a covalent bond.

Water is a polar molecule because its hydrogen and oxygen atoms share electrons unequally owing to electronegativity differences.

A polar molecule is one that has both a partially positive and a partially negative region.

Electronegativity is the tendency of an atom to attract and gain electrons.

Each hydrogen atom has a nucleus composed of a single positively charged proton and one negatively charged electron orbiting the nucleus. Each oxygen atom, on the other hand, has a nucleus composed of eight positively charged protons and eight uncharged neutrons, with eight negatively charged electrons orbiting the nucleus.

Because the oxygen atom has a higher electronegativity than the hydrogen atom, electrons are drawn to oxygen and repelled by hydrogen. During the formation of a water molecule, the ten electrons link up and form five orbitals, leaving behind two lone pairs. The two lone pairs associate themselves with the oxygen atom.

As a result, oxygen atoms have a partial negative (δ-) charge, while hydrogen atoms have a partial positive (δ+) charge. While the water molecule has no net charge, the hydrogen and oxygen atoms all have partial charges.

Because hydrogen atoms in a water molecule are partially positively charged, they are attracted to partially negatively charged oxygen atoms in nearby water molecules, allowing a different type of chemical bond called hydrogen bond to form between nearby water molecules or other negatively charged molecules.

High specific heat of water molecule hydrogen bonding diagram

A hydrogen bond is a bond that forms between a partially positively charged hydrogen atom and an electronegative atom.

Hydrogen bonds are not 'real' bonds in the same way that covalent, ionic, and metallic bonds are. Covalent, ionic, and metallic bonds are intramolecular electrostatic attractions, meaning they hold atoms together within a molecule. On the other hand, hydrogen bonds are intermolecular forces meaning they occur between molecules (Fig. 2).

While individual hydrogen bonds are often weak, when they form in huge numbers--such as in water and organic polymers--they have a substantial impact.

Polymers are complex molecules that are made up of identical subunits called monomers. Nucleic acids like DNA, for example, are organic polymers composed of nucleotide monomers. The base pairs in DNA are held together by hydrogen bonds.

How does hydrogen bonding lead to high specific heat of water?

Heat is basically the energy generated from the movement of molecules. Given that water molecules are linked to other water molecules via hydrogen bonding, there must be a huge amount of heat energy to first disrupt the hydrogen bonds and then to speed up movement of the molecules, thereby causing water temperature to rise.

As such, the investment of one calorie of heat results in relatively little change in water temperature because much of the energy is utilized to break hydrogen bonds rather than to quicken the movement of water molecules.

We can perform an experiment to measure the specific heat of substances using the change in water temperature

A method called calorimetry can be used to determine the specific heat of a substance or object.

Calorimetry can be summed up in four basic steps:

  1. Bring the substance's temperature up to a predetermined level.

  2. Put this substance in a thermally insulated container with water with a known mass and temperature.

  3. Allow the water and the substance to reach equilibrium.

  4. Take the temperature of both when they are in equilibrium.

Because the container is thermally insulated, heat energy is transferred only to the water and not to the surrounding environment. As a result, the heat transmitted from the item equals the heat absorbed by the water.

With this, we can use the formula to write this heat transfer in terms of the following formula to solve for the specific heat of the substance or object.

Where:

mo is the mass of the object

mw is the mass of the water

co is the specific heat of the object

cw is the specific heat of the water

Teq is the temperature at equilibrium

Thot is the initial temperature of the object

Tcold is the initial temperature of the water

What is the importance of the high specific heat of water in sustaining life on Earth?

Temperature is an environmental factor that can limit or enhance the ability of organisms to survive and reproduce. Maintaining stable temperature is crucial to the survival of such many organisms. Water (whether in the environment or within the organism) can help regulate body temperature due to its high specific heat.

For example, coral and microscopic algae are two organisms that depend on each other for survival. When water temperatures get too high, the microscopic algae leave the coral tissue and the coral slowly dies, a process called coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is very concerning because corals serve as an ecosystem for many other forms of marine life.

Large bodies of water can regulate their temperature due to water's high specific heat capacity. Oceans, for example, have a higher heat capacity than land because water has a higher specific heat than dry soil. As opposed to oceans, land tends to heat up faster and reach higher temperatures. They also tend to cool down faster and reach lower temperatures.

Similarly, water's high specific heat also explains why temperatures on land near bodies of water are more mild and stable. That is, because water's high heat capacity limits its temperature within a relatively small range, seas and coastal land areas have more stable temperatures than inland places. On the other hand, areas farther from the shore tend to have a significantly larger range of seasonal and daily temperatures.

We can also see how the role of the high specific heat of water in organisms' ability to regulate their internal temperature. Warm-blooded animals, for example, are able to take advantage of the high specific heat of water to attain a more uniform distribution of heat in their bodies. Like a car’s cooling system, water facilitates the movement of heat from hot to cold spots, helping the body to maintain a more consistent temperature.

High Specific Heat of Water - Key takeaways

  • The quantity of heat that must be taken in or lost for one gram of material so that its temperature changes by one degree Celsius is referred to as specific heat.
  • Water has one of the highest specific heat among common material substances at approximately 1 calorie/gram °C = 4.2 joule/gram °C.
  • Because water has a high specific heat capacity, it takes a lot of energy to create temperature changes.
  • Large bodies of water can regulate their temperature due to water's high specific heat capacity. This explains why land near large bodies of water have more stable and milder temperatures compared to those farther from them.
  • We can also see the role of the high specific heat of water in organisms' ability to regulate their internal temperature.

References

  1. Zedalis, Julianne, et al. Advanced Placement Biology for AP Courses Textbook. Texas Education Agency.
  2. Reece, Jane B., et al. Campbell Biology. Eleventh ed., Pearson Higher Education, 2016.
  3. “Climate Science Investigations South Florida - Temperature Over Time.” Climate Science Investigations South Florida - Temperature Over Time, www.ces.fau.edu, http://www.ces.fau.edu/nasa/module-3/why-does-temperature-vary/land-and-water.php. Accessed 6 July 2022.
  4. “Biology 2e, The Chemistry of Life, The Chemical Foundation of Life, Water.” OpenEd CUNY, opened.cuny.edu, https://opened.cuny.edu/courseware/lesson/609/overview. Accessed 6 July 2022.
  5. “Specific Heat Capacity of Water | Earth 501: Contemporary Controversies in the Earth Sciences.” Specific Heat Capacity of Water | Earth 501: Contemporary Controversies in the Earth Sciences, www.e-education.psu.edu, https://www.e-education.psu.edu/earth501/content/p5_p9.html. Accessed 6 July 2022.
  6. “Thermodynamics: Specific Heat.” University of Hawai’i, http://www2.hawaii.edu/~plam/ph170A_2008/Labs/Lab9.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2022.
  7. “Heat Capacities for Some Select Substances.” Heat Capacities for Some Select Substances, gchem.cm.utexas.edu, https://gchem.cm.utexas.edu/data/section2.php?target=heat-capacities.php. Accessed 6 July 2022.
  8. Specific Heats and Molar Heat Capacities for Various Substances at 20 C. hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu, http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Tables/sphtt.html. Accessed 6 July 2022.

Frequently Asked Questions about High Specific Heat of Water

The quantity of heat that must be taken in or lost for one gram of material so that its temperature changes by one degree Celsius is referred to as specific heat. Water has one of the highest specific heat among common material substances at approximately 1 calorie/gram °C = 4.2 joule/gram °C.

The specific heat capacity of water is so high because of the hydrogen bonds that bring the molecules together. 


Heat is basically the energy generated from the movement of molecules. Given that water molecules are linked to other water molecules via hydrogen bonding, there must be a huge amount of heat energy to first disrupt the hydrogen bonds and then to speed up movement of the molecules.

The specific heat capacity of water is so high because of the hydrogen bonds that bring the molecules together. 


Heat is basically the energy generated from the movement of molecules. Given that water molecules are linked to other water molecules via hydrogen bonding, there must be a huge amount of heat energy to first disrupt the hydrogen bonds and then to speed up movement of the molecules.

High specific heat of water means it takes a lot of heat energy to change the temperature of water.

Temperature is an environmental factor that can limit or enhance the ability of organisms to survive and reproduce. Maintaining stable temperature is crucial to the survival of such many organisms. Due to its high specific heat, water can regulate temperature.

Final High Specific Heat of Water Quiz

Question

Why does it take so long for water to boil or cool down?

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Answer

It takes a long time for water to change temperature due to its high specific heat. 

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Question

What is specific heat?

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Answer

The quantity of heat that must be taken in or lost for one gram of material so that its temperature changes by one degree Celsius.

Show question

Question

What is the specific heat of water in joule/gram °C?

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Answer

4.2

Show question

Question

How does the high specific heat of water slow down the impact of global warming caused by greenhouse gases?

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Answer

Because the Earth is covered by large bodies of water which has a high specific heat, when a specific quantity of excess CO2 is added to the atmosphere it takes time for the warming of air, land, and ocean to become fully apparent. Even if there were means to directly add heat to the Earth, it would take time for the temperatures to rise.

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Question

What is the intramolecular force that binds atoms within the water molecule?

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Answer

Covalent bond

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Question

What is the intermolecular force that binds water molecules with each other?

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Answer

Hydrogen bond

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Question

Which chemical bond in water molecules causes them to have high specific heat?

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Answer

Hydrogen bond

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Question

Explain why hydrogen bonding causes water molecules to require a great deal of energy to change temperature. 

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Answer


Heat is basically the energy generated from the movement of molecules. Given that water molecules are linked to other water molecules via hydrogen bonding, there must be a huge amount of heat energy to first disrupt the hydrogen bonds and then to speed up movement of the molecules.


Show question

Question

What is calorimetry?

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Answer

Calorimetry is a process used to determine the specific heat of a substance or object by measuring the change in temperature (through the release of absorption of heat energy) during a physical or chemical reaction.

 

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Question

Why is the high specific heat of water important in sustaining life?

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Answer

Temperature is an environmental factor that can limit or enhance the ability of organisms to survive and reproduce. Maintaining stable temperature is crucial to the survival of many organisms. Water (both in the environment and inside the organism) can help regulate body temperature due to its high specific heat.

Show question

Question

Explain how the high specific heat of water leads to more stable temperature for land areas near large bodies of water.

Show answer

Answer

Large bodies of water can regulate their temperature due to water's high specific heat capacity. Oceans, for example, have a higher heat capacity than land because water has a higher specific heat than dry soil. As opposed to oceans, land tends to heat up faster and reach higher temperatures. They also tend to cool down faster and reach lower temperatures. Similarly, because water's high heat capacity limits its temperature within a relatively small range, seas and coastal land areas have more stable temperatures than inland places. 

Show question

Question

Explain how the high specific heat of water  plays a role in regulating the internal body temperature of organisms.

Show answer

Answer

Warm-blooded animals are able to use the high specific heat of water to attain a more uniform distribution of heat in their bodies. Like a car’s cooling system, water facilitates the movement of heat from hot to cold spots, helping the body to maintain a more consistent temperature.

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Question

Land has ___ specific heat than oceans.

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Answer

Lower specific heat

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Question

Why is it necessary to use a thermally insulated container in using calorimetry to determine the specific heat of a substance?

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Answer

Because the container is thermally insulated, heat energy is transferred only to the water and not to the surrounding environment. As a result, the heat transmitted from the item equals the heat absorbed by the water. We can then use the water temperature in equilibrium to calculate for the specific heat of the substance.

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