Determinants of the ratio of actual to potential evapotranspiration

Liqing Peng, Zhenzhong Zeng, Zhongwang Wei, Anping Chen, Eric F. Wood, Justin Sheffield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


A widely used approach for estimating actual evapotranspiration (AET) in hydrological and earth system models is to constrain potential evapotranspiration (PET) with a single empirical stress factor (Ω = AET/PET). Ω represents the water availability and is fundamentally linked to canopy–atmosphere coupling. However, the mean and seasonal variability of Ω in the models have rarely been evaluated against observations, and the model performances for different climates and biomes remain unclear. In this study, we first derived the observed Ω from 28 FLUXNET sites over North America during 2000–2007, which was then used to evaluate Ω in six large-scale model-based datasets. Our results confirm the importance of incorporating canopy height in the formulation of aerodynamic conductance in the case of forests. Furthermore, leaf area index (LAI) is central to the prediction of Ω and can be quantitatively linked to the partitioning between transpiration and soil evaporation (R 2  = 0.43). The substantial differences between observed and model-based Ω in forests (range: 0.2~0.9) are highly related to the way these models estimated PET and the way they represented the responses of Ω to the environmental drivers, especially wind speed and LAI. This is the first assessment of Ω in models based on in situ observations. Our findings demonstrate that the observed Ω is useful for evaluating, validating, and optimizing the modeling of AET and thus of water and energy balances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1326-1343
Number of pages18
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Environmental Science
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Chemistry


  • aerodynamic conductance
  • canopy height
  • decoupling
  • evapotranspiration
  • leaf area index
  • potential evapotranspiration
  • surface conductance


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