Letter | Published:

Global separation of plant transpiration from groundwater and streamflow

Nature volume 525, pages 9194 (03 September 2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Current land surface models assume that groundwater, streamflow and plant transpiration are all sourced and mediated by the same well mixed water reservoir—the soil. However, recent work in Oregon1 and Mexico2 has shown evidence of ecohydrological separation, whereby different subsurface compartmentalized pools of water supply either plant transpiration fluxes or the combined fluxes of groundwater and streamflow. These findings have not yet been widely tested. Here we use hydrogen and oxygen isotopic data (2H/1H (δ2H) and 18O/16O (δ18O)) from 47 globally distributed sites to show that ecohydrological separation is widespread across different biomes. Precipitation, stream water and groundwater from each site plot approximately along the δ2H/δ18O slope of local precipitation inputs. But soil and plant xylem waters extracted from the 47 sites all plot below the local stream water and groundwater on the meteoric water line, suggesting that plants use soil water that does not itself contribute to groundwater recharge or streamflow. Our results further show that, at 80% of the sites, the precipitation that supplies groundwater recharge and streamflow is different from the water that supplies parts of soil water recharge and plant transpiration. The ubiquity of subsurface water compartmentalization found here, and the segregation of storm types relative to hydrological and ecological fluxes, may be used to improve numerical simulations of runoff generation, stream water transit time and evaporation–transpiration partitioning. Future land surface model parameterizations should be closely examined for how vegetation, groundwater recharge and streamflow are assumed to be coupled.

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Acknowledgements

J.E. thanks the Saskatchewan Innovation and Opportunity Scholarship, Global Institute for Water Security, and School of Environment and Sustainability (University of Saskatchewan) for financial support.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Global Institute for Water Security and School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 3H5, Canada

    • Jaivime Evaristo
    •  & Jeffrey J. McDonnell
  2. Department of Geography, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta T2N IN4, Canada

    • Scott Jasechko
  3. School of Geosciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB34 3FX, UK

    • Jeffrey J. McDonnell
  4. Department of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

    • Jeffrey J. McDonnell

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Contributions

J.J.M. conceived the idea of testing the ecohydrological compartmentalization hypothesis with global data. J.E., S.J. and J.J.M. brainstormed on how to do this. J.E. designed the approach, compiled the data set, and conducted the statistical analyses. J.E. wrote the first paper draft. S.J. and J.J.M. edited and commented on the manuscript and contributed to the text in later iterations.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jaivime Evaristo.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14983

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