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Evapotranspiration (ET) is a term used to describe the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration from the Earth's land surface to atmosphere. Evaporation accounts for the movement of water to the air from sources such as the soil, canopy interception, and waterbodies. Transpiration accounts for the movement of water within a plant and the subsequent loss of water as vapor through stomata in its leaves. Evapotranspiration is an important part of the water cycle. An element (such as a tree) that contributes to evapotranspiration can be called an evapotranspirator.

Potential evapotranspiration (PET) is a representation of the environmental demand for evapotranspiration and represents the evapotranspiration rate of a short green crop, completely shading the ground, of uniform height and with adequate water status in the soil profile. It is a reflection of the energy available to evaporate water, and of the wind available to transport the water vapour from the ground up into the lower atmosphere. Evapotranspiration is said to equal potential evapotranspiration when there is ample water.

Evapotranspiration and the water cycle

Evapotranspiration is a significant water loss from a watershed. Types of vegetation and land use significantly affect evapotranspiration, and therefore the amount of water leaving a watershed. Because water transpired through leaves comes from the roots, plants with deep reaching roots can more constantly transpire water. Thus herbaceous plants transpire less than woody plants because herbaceous plants usually lack a deep taproot. Also, woody plants keep their structure over long winters while herbaceous plants must grow up from seed in the spring in seasonal climates, and will contribute almost nothing to evapotranspiration in the spring. Conifer forests tend to have much higher rates of evapotranspiration than deciduous forests. This is because their needles give them superior surface area, resulting in more pores for transpiration, and allowing for more droplets of rain to be suspended in and around the needles and branches, where some of the droplets can then be evaporated. Factors that affect evapotranspiration include the plant's growth stage or level of maturity, percentage of soil cover, solar radiation, humidity, temperature, and wind.

Through evapotranspiration, forests reduce water yield, except for in unique ecosystems called cloud forests. Trees in cloud forests condense fog or low clouds into liquid water on their surface, which drips down to the ground. These trees still contribute to evapotranspiration, but often condense more water than they evaporate or transpire.

In areas that are not irrigated, actual evapotranspiration is usually no greater than precipitation, with some buffer in time depending on the soil's ability to hold water. It will usually be less because some water will be lost due to percolation or surface runoff. An exception is areas with high water tables, where capillary action can cause water from the groundwater to rise through the soil matrix to the surface. If potential evapotranspiration is greater than actual precipitation, then soil will dry out, unless irrigation is used.

Evapotranspiration can never be greater than PET, but can be lower if there is not enough water to be evaporated or plants are unable to readily transpire.

Estimating evapotranspiration

Evapotranspiration can be measured or estimated using several methods.

Indirect methods

Pan evaporation data can be used to estimate lake evaporation, but transpiration and evaporation of intercepted rain on vegetation are unknown. There are three general approaches to estimate evapotranspiration indirectly.

Catchment water balance

Evapotranspiration may be estimated by creating an equation of the water balance of a catchment (or watershed). The equation balances the change in water stored within the basin (S) with inputs and exports:

\Delta S = P - ET - Q - D \,\!

The input is precipitation (P), and the exports are evapotranspiration (which is to be estimated), streamflow (Q), and groundwater recharge (D). If the change in storage, precipitation, streamflow, and groundwater recharge are all estimated, the missing flux, ET, can be estimated by rearranging the above equation as follows:

ET = P -\Delta S - Q - D \,\!

Hydrometeorological equations

The most general and widely used equation for calculating reference ET is the Penman equation. The Penman-Monteith variation is recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization. The simpler Blaney-Criddle equation was popular in the Western United Statesmarker for many years but it is not as accurate in regions with higher humidities. Other solutions used includes Makkink, which is simple but must be calibrated to a specific location, and Hargreaves. To convert the reference evapotranspiration to actual crop evapotranspiration, a crop coefficient and a stress coeficient must be used.

Energy balance

A third methodology to estimate the actual evapotranspiration is the use of the energy balance.

\lambda E = R_n + G - H \,\!

where λE is the energy needed to change the phase of water from liquid to gas, Rn is the net radiation, G is the soil heat flux and H is the sensible heat flux. Using instruments like a scintillometer, soil heat flux plates or radiation meters, the components of the energy balance can be calculated and the energy available for actual evapotranspiration can be solved.

Direct method

The only direct method for measuring ET is through a lysimeter.

Eddy covariance

The most direct method of measuring evapotranspiration is with the eddy covariance technique in which fast fluctuations of vertical wind speed are correlated with fast fluctuations in atmospheric water vapor density. This directly estimates the transfer of water vapor (evapotranspiration) from the land (or canopy) surface to the atmosphere.

Potential evapotranspiration

Potential evapotranspiration (PET) is the amount of water that could be evaporated and transpired if there was sufficient water available. This demand incorporates the energy available for evaporation and the ability of the lower atmosphere to transport evaporated moisture away from the land surface. PET is higher in the summer, on less cloudy days, and closer to the equator, because of the higher levels of solar radiation that provides the energy for evaporation. PET is also higher on windy days because the evaporated moisture can be quickly moved from the ground of plants, allowing more evaporation to fill its place.

PET is expressed in terms of a depth of water, and can be graphed during the year (see figure). There is usually a pronounced peak in summer, which results from higher temperatures.

Potential evapotranspiration is usually measured indirectly, from other climatic factors, but also depends on the surface type, such free water (for lakes and oceans), the soil type for bare soil, and the vegetation. Often a value for the potential evapotranspiration is calculated at a nearby climate station on a reference surface, conventionally short grass. This value is called the reference evapotranspiration, and can be converted to a potential evapotranspiration by multiplying with a surface coefficient. In agriculture, this is called a crop coefficient. The difference between potential evapotranspiration and precipitation is used in irrigation scheduling.

Average annual PET is often compared to average annual precipitation, P. The ratio of the two, P/PET, is the aridity index.


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