Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Terrestrial water fluxes dominated by transpiration


Renewable fresh water over continents has input from precipitation and losses to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration. Global-scale estimates of transpiration from climate models are poorly constrained owing to large uncertainties in stomatal conductance and the lack of catchment-scale measurements required for model calibration, resulting in a range of predictions spanning 20 to 65 per cent of total terrestrial evapotranspiration (14,000 to 41,000 km3 per year) (refs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Here we use the distinct isotope effects of transpiration and evaporation to show that transpiration is by far the largest water flux from Earth’s continents, representing 80 to 90 per cent of terrestrial evapotranspiration. On the basis of our analysis of a global data set of large lakes and rivers, we conclude that transpiration recycles 62,000 ± 8,000 km3 of water per year to the atmosphere, using half of all solar energy absorbed by land surfaces in the process. We also calculate CO2 uptake by terrestrial vegetation by connecting transpiration losses to carbon assimilation using water-use efficiency ratios of plants, and show the global gross primary productivity to be 129 ± 32 gigatonnes of carbon per year, which agrees, within the uncertainty, with previous estimates6. The dominance of transpiration water fluxes in continental evapotranspiration suggests that, from the point of view of water resource forecasting, climate model development should prioritize improvements in simulations of biological fluxes rather than physical (evaporation) fluxes.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: δ18O and δ2H values of large lakes and semi-enclosed seas.
Figure 2: Transpiration water losses for 56 lake catchments grouped by ecoregion (18O/16O-based results).
Figure 3: Transpiration and carbon fluxes within 73 lake catchments.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Lawrence, D. M., Thornton, P. E., Oleson, K. W. & Bonan, G. B. Partitioning of evaporation into transpiration, soil evaporation, and canopy evaporation in a GCM: impacts on land-atmosphere interaction. J. Hydrometeorol. 8, 862–880 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Alton, P., Fisher, R., Los, S. & Williams, M. Simulations of global evapotranspiration using semiempirical and mechanistic schemes of plant hydrology. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 23, GB4023 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Cao, L., Bala, G., Caldeira, K., Nemani, R. & Ban-Weiss, G. Importance of carbon dioxide physiological forcing to future climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 9513–9518 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Ito, A. & Motoko, I. Water-use efficiency of the terrestrial biosphere: a model analysis focusing on interactions between the global carbon and water cycles. J. Hydrometeorol. 13, 681–694 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Gerten, D. et al. Contemporary “green” water flows: simulations with a dynamic global vegetation and water balance model. Phys. Chem. Earth 30, 334–338 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Beer, C. et al. Terrestrial gross carbon dioxide uptake: global distribution and covariation with climate. Science 329, 834–838 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Dai, A. & Trenberth, K. E. Estimates of freshwater discharge from continents: latitudinal and seasonal variations. J. Hydrometeorol. 3, 660–687 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Yakir, D. & Wang, X. F. Fluxes of CO2 and water between terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere estimated from isotope measurements. Nature 380, 515–517 (1996)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Williams, D. et al. Evapotranspiration components determined by stable isotope, sap flow and eddy covariance techniques. Agric. For. Meteorol. 125, 241–258 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Dawson, T. E. Determining water use by trees and forests from isotopic, energy balance and transpiration analyses: the roles of tree size and hydraulic lift. Tree Physiol. 16, 263–272 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Welp, L. R. et al. δ18O of water vapor, evapotranspiration and the sites of leaf water evaporation in a soybean canopy. Plant Cell Environ. 31, 1214–1228 (2008)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Rozanski, K., Araguas-Araguas, L. & Gonfiantini, R. in Climate Change in Continental Isotopic Records (eds Swart, P. K. et al.) 1–36 (Am. Geophys. Union, 1993)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Horita, J. & Wesolowski, D. Liquid-vapour fractionation of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes of water from the freezing to the critical temperature. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 58, 3425–3437 (1994)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Craig, H. & Gordon, L. I. in Stable Isotopes in Oceanographic Studies and Paleotemperatures (ed. Tongiorgi, E. ) 9–130 (Lab. Geol. Nucl., 1965)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Bowen, G. J. & Revenaugh, J. Interpolating the isotopic composition of modern meteoric precipitation. Wat. Resour. Res. 39, 1299 (2003)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. Miralles, D. G., Gash, J. H., Holmes, T. R. H., de Jeu, R. A. M. & Dolman, A. J. Global canopy interception from satellite observations. J. Geophys. Res. 115, D16122 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. New, M., Lister, D., Hulme, M. & Makin, I. A high-resolution data set of surface climate over global land areas. Clim. Res. 21, 1–25 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Yoshimura, K., Kanamitsu, M., Noone, D. & Oki, T. Historical isotope simulation using reanalysis atmospheric data. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D19108 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Reynolds, J. F., Kemp, P. R. & Tenhunen, J. D. Effects of long-term rainfall variability on evapotranspiration and soil water distribution in the Chihuahuan desert: a modeling analysis. Plant Ecol. 150, 145–159 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Downing, J. A. et al. The global abundance and size distribution of lakes, ponds, and impoundments. Limnol. Oceanogr. 51, 2388–2397 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J. T. & Kiehl, J. Earth’s global energy budget. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 311–323 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Beer, C., Reichstein, M., Ciais, P., Farquhar, G. D. & Papale, D. Mean annual GPP of Europe derived from its water balance. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L05401 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Farquhar, G. D., Ehleringer, J. R. & Hubick, K. T. Carbon isotope discrimination and photosynthesis. Annu. Rev. Plant Physiol. Plant Mol. Biol. 40, 503–537 (1989)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Jung, M. et al. Recent decline in the global land evapotranspiration trend due to limited moisture supply. Nature 467, 951–954 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Durack, P. J., Wijffels, S. E. & Matear, R. J. Ocean salinities reveal strong global water cycle intensification during 1950 to 2000. Science 336, 455–458 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Gibson, J. J., Birks, S. J. & Edwards, T. W. D. Global prediction of δA and δ2H-δ18O evaporation slopes for lakes and soil water accounting for seasonality. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 22, GB2031 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Gonfiantini, R. in Handbook of Environmental Isotope Geochemistry Vol. 2: The Terrestrial Environment (eds Fritz, P. & Fontes, J.-Ch. ) 113–163 (Elsevier, 1986)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Buck, A. L. New equations for computing vapour pressure and enhancement factor. J. Appl. Meteorol. 20, 1527–1532 (1981)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Hijmans, R. J., Cameron, S. E., Parra, J. L., Jones, P. G. & Jarvis, A. Very high resolution interpolated climate surfaces for global land areas. Int. J. Climatol. 25, 1965–1978 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Global Energy and Water Cycle Experiment. International Satellite Land-Surface Climatology Project. (2012)

Download references


We thank T. W. D. Edwards, T. Gleeson and M. C. Molles Jr for comments on the manuscript, and are grateful to O. Kwiecien, D. G. Miralles, B. K. Nyarko, K. Yoshimura and F. Yuan for providing access to isotope and gridded data sets. Support for this work was provided by a graduate fellowship awarded to S.J. by the Caswell Silver Foundation through the University of New Mexico.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.J. designed the study, compiled each data set, did the geographic information system and remote sensing work, developed the equations, did the water balance and carbon flux calculations, and wrote the paper. Z.D.S., J.J.G., S.J.B., Y.Y. and P.J.F. discussed the results, commented on the manuscript and contributed to text.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Scott Jasechko.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1-6 Supplementary Tables 1-6 and Supplementary References. (PDF 1378 kb)

Supplementary Data

This file contains a tabulated dataset of δ18O and δ2H values (V-SMOW standard reference) for large lakes. (XLS 221 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Jasechko, S., Sharp, Z., Gibson, J. et al. Terrestrial water fluxes dominated by transpiration. Nature 496, 347–350 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene