When you look at a lake, you are looking at a collection of molecules that have been there on average for about a decade. In the ocean the residence time is thought to be more like a hundred years. Altogether about 60 percent of water molecules in a rainfall are returned to the atmosphere within a day or two. Once evaporated, they spend no more than a week or so—Drury says twelve days—in the sky before falling again as rain.
Evaporation is a swift process, as you can easily gauge by the fate of a puddle on a summer's day. Even something as large as the Mediterranean would dry out in a thousand years if it were not continually replenished. Such an event occurred a little under six million years ago and provoked what is known to science as the Messinian Salinity Crisis. What happened was that continental movement closed the Strait of Gibraltar. As the Mediterranean dried, its evaporated contents fell as freshwater rain into other seas, mildly diluting their saltiness—indeed, making them just dilute enough to freeze over larger areas than normal. The enlarged area of ice bounced back more of the Sun's heat and pushed Earth into an ice age. So at least the theory goes.