Articles | Volume 17, issue 10
Research article
25 Oct 2013
Research article |  | 25 Oct 2013

A worldwide analysis of trends in water-balance evapotranspiration

A. M. Ukkola and I. C. Prentice

Abstract. Climate change is expected to alter the global hydrological cycle, with inevitable consequences for freshwater availability to people and ecosystems. But the attribution of recent trends in the terrestrial water balance remains disputed. This study attempts to account statistically for both trends and interannual variability in water-balance evapotranspiration (ET), estimated from the annual observed streamflow in 109 river basins during "water years" 1961–1999 and two gridded precipitation data sets. The basins were chosen based on the availability of streamflow time-series data in the Dai et al. (2009) synthesis. They were divided into water-limited "dry" and energy-limited "wet" basins following the Budyko framework. We investigated the potential roles of precipitation, aerosol-corrected solar radiation, land use change, wind speed, air temperature, and atmospheric CO2. Both trends and variability in ET show strong control by precipitation. There is some additional control of ET trends by vegetation processes, but little evidence for control by other factors. Interannual variability in ET was overwhelmingly dominated by precipitation, which accounted on average for 54–55% of the variation in wet basins (ranging from 0 to 100%) and 94–95% in dry basins (ranging from 69 to 100%). Precipitation accounted for 45–46% of ET trends in wet basins and 80–84% in dry basins. Net atmospheric CO2 effects on transpiration, estimated using the Land-surface Processes and eXchanges (LPX) model, did not contribute to observed trends in ET because declining stomatal conductance was counteracted by slightly but significantly increasing foliage cover.