The color of water varies with the ambient conditions in which that water is present. While relatively small quantities of water appear to be colorless, pure water has a slight blue color that becomes deeper as the thickness of the observed sample increases. The hue of water is an intrinsic property and is caused by selective absorption and scattering of white light. Dissolved elements or suspended impurities may give water a different color.
Main article: Electromagnetic absorption by water
The intrinsic color of liquid water may be demonstrated by looking at a white light source through a long pipe that is filled with purified water and closed at both ends with a transparent window. The light turquoise blue color is caused by weak absorption in the red part of the visible spectrum.
Absorptions in the visible spectrum are usually attributed to excitations of electronic energy states in matter. Water is a simple three-atom molecule, H2O, and all its electronic absorptions occur in the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum and are therefore not responsible for the color of water in the visible region of the spectrum. The water molecule has three fundamental modes of vibration. Two stretching vibrations of the O-H bonds in the gaseous state of water occur at v1 = 3650 cm−1 and v3 = 3755 cm−1. Absorption due to these vibrations occurs in the infrared region of the spectrum. The absorption in the visible spectrum is due mainly to the harmonic v1 + 3v3 = 14,318 cm−1, which is equivalent to a wavelength of 698 nm. In liquid state at 20°C these vibrations are red-shifted due to hydrogen bonding, resulting in red absorption at 740 nm, other harmonics such as v1 + v2 + 3v3 giving red absorption at 660 nm. The absorption curve for heavy water (D2O) is of a similar shape, but is shifted further towards the infrared end of the spectrum, because the vibrational transitions have a lower energy. For this reason, heavy water does not absorb red light and thus large bodies of D2O would lack the characteristic blue color of the more commonly-found light water (1H2O).
Absorption intensity decreases markedly with each successive overtone, resulting in very weak absorption for the third overtone. For this reason, the pipe needs to have a length of a meter or more and the water must be purified by microfiltration to remove any particles that could produce Mie scattering.
Main article: Ocean color
Lakes and oceans appear blue for several reasons. One is that the surface of the water reflects the color of the sky. While this reflection contributes to the observed color, it is not the sole reason. Water in swimming pools with white-painted sides and bottom will appear as a turquoise blue, even in indoor pools where there is no blue sky to be reflected. The deeper the pool, the bluer the water.
Some of the light hitting the surface of ocean is reflected but most of it penetrates the water surface, interacting with water molecules and other substances in the water. Water molecules can vibrate in three different modes when they interact with light. The red, orange, yellow, and sometimes green wavelengths of light are absorbed so the remaining light seen is composed of the shorter wavelength blues and violets. This is the main reason the ocean's color is blue. The relative contribution of reflected skylight and the light scattered back from the depths is strongly dependent on observation angle.
Scattering from suspended particles also plays an important role in the color of lakes and oceans, causing the water to look greener or bluer in different areas. A few tens of meters of water will absorb all light, so without scattering, all bodies of water would appear black. Because most lakes and oceans contain suspended living matter and mineral particles, light from above is scattered and some of it is reflected upwards. Scattering from suspended particles would normally give a white color, as with snow, but because the light first passes through many meters of blue-colored liquid, the scattered light appears blue. In extremely pure water—as is found in mountain lakes, where scattering from particles is very low—the scattering from water molecules themselves also contributes a blue color.
Diffuse sky radiation due to Rayleigh scattering in the atmosphere along one's line of sight gives distant objects a blue tint. This is most commonly noticed with distant mountains, but also contributes to the blueness of the ocean in the distance.
Main article: Blue ice (glacial)
Glaciers are large bodies of ice and snow formed in cold climates by processes involving the compaction of fallen snow. While snowy glaciers appear white from a distance, up close and when shielded from direct ambient light, glaciers usually appear a deep blue due to the long path lengths of the internal reflected light.
Relatively small amounts of regular ice appear white because plenty of air bubbles are present, and also because small quantities of water appear to be colorless. In glaciers, on the other hand, the pressure causes the air bubbles, trapped in the accumulated snow, to be squeezed out increasing the density of the created ice. Large quantities of water appear blue, therefore a large piece of compressed ice, or a glacier, would also appear blue.
Dissolved and particulate material in water can cause it to be appear more green, light brown, dark brown, or red. For instance, dissolved organic compounds called tannins can result in dark brown colors, or algae floating in the water (particles) can impart a green color. Color variations can be measured with reference to a standard color scale. Two examples of standard color scales for natural water bodies are the Forel-Ule scale and the Platinum-Cobalt scale. For example, slight discoloration is measured against the Platinum-Cobalt scale in Hazen units (HU).
The color of a water sample can be reported as:
Testing for color can be a quick and easy test which often reflects the amount of organic material in the water, although certain inorganic components like iron or manganese can also impart color.
Water color can reveal physical, chemical and bacteriological conditions. In drinking water, green can indicate copper leaching from copper plumbing and can also represent algae growth. Blue can also indicate copper, or might be caused by syphoning of industrial cleaners in the tank of commodes, commonly known as backflowing. Reds can be signs of rust from iron pipes or airborne bacteria from lakes, etc. Black water can indicate growth of sulfur-reducing bacteria inside a hot water tank set to too low a temperature. This usually has a strong sulfur or rotten egg (H2S) odor and is easily corrected by draining the water heater and increasing the temperature to 49 °C (120 °F) or higher. The odor will always be in the hot water pipes if sulfate reducing bacteria are the cause and never in the cold water plumbing. Learning the water impurity indication color spectrum can make identifying and solving cosmetic, bacteriological and chemical problems easier.
The presence of color in water does not necessarily indicate that the water is not drinkable. Color-causing substances such as tannins can be toxic to animals in large concentration.
Color is not removed by typical water filters; however the use of coagulants may succeed in trapping the color-causing compounds within the resulting precipitate. Other factors can affect the color seen:
Various cultures divide the semantic field of colors differently from the English language usage and some do not distinguish between blue and green in the same way. An example is Welsh where glas can mean blue or green, or Vietnamese where xanh likewise can mean either. Conversely, in Russian and some other languages, there is no single word for blue, but rather different words for light blue (голубой, goluboy) and dark blue (синий, siniy)
Other color names assigned to bodies of water are sea green and ultramarine blue. Unusual oceanic colorings have given rise to the terms red tide and black tide.
The Ancient Greek poet Homer uses the epithet "wine-dark sea"; in addition, he also describes the sea as "grey". William Ewart Gladstone has suggested that this is due to the Ancient Greeks classifying colors primarily by luminosity rather than hue, while others believe Homer was color-blind.
The Ancient Indian Wisdom of Veda consider life giving contributions of water a part of divine and recognize water as a primeval God Varuna; and the color of Varuna is described as blue. In the Gayatri associated with Varuna, the word "neela purusha" comes in second line which calls the water deity, the blue one.
Heavy water is colourless because all of its corresponding vibrational transitions are shifted to lower energy (higher wavelength) by the increase in isotope mass.