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Transpiration - The Water Cycle

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What is transpiration?

Transpiration is the process by which moisture is carried through plants from roots to small pores on the underside of leaves, where it changes to vapor and is released to the atmosphere. Transpiration is essentially evaporation of water from plant leaves. Transpiration also includes a process called guttation, which is the loss of water in liquid form from the uninjured leaf or stem of the plant, principally through water stomata.

Studies have revealed that about 10 percent of the moisture found in the atmosphere is released by plants through transpiration. The remaining 90 percent is mainly supplied by evaporation from oceans, seas, and other bodies of water (lakes, rivers, streams).

Transpiration and plant leaves

Picture, courtesy of USEPA, of leaf transpiration. Plants put down roots into the soil to draw water and nutrients up into the stems and leaves. Some of this water is returned to the air by transpiration (when combined with evaporation, the total process is known as evapotranspiration). Transpiration rates vary widely depending on weather conditions, such as temperature, humidity, sunlight availability and intensity, precipitation, soil type and saturation, wind, land slope, and water use and diversion by people. During dry periods, transpiration can contribute to the loss of moisture in the upper soil zone, which can have an effect on vegetation and food-crop fields.

How much water do plants transpire?

Plant transpiration is pretty much an invisible process, since the water is evaporating from the leaf surfaces, you don't just go out and see the leaves "sweating". Just because you can't see the water doesn't mean it is not being put into the air, though. During a growing season, a leaf will transpire many times more water than its own weight. An acre of corn gives off about 3,000-4,000 gallons (11,400-15,100 liters) of water each day, and a large oak tree can transpire 40,000 gallons (151,000 liters) per year.

Atmospheric factors affecting transpiration

The amount of water that plants transpire varies greatly geographically and over time. There are a number of factors that determine transpiration rates:

Transpiration and groundwater

Diagram showing how the water table can dip where plant roots access it during the growing season. In many places, the top layer of the soil where plant roots are located is above the water table and thus is often wet to some extent, but is not totally saturated, as is soil below the water table. The soil above the water table gets wet when it rains as water infiltrates into it from the surface, But, it will dry out without additional precipitation. Since the water table is usually below the depth of the plant roots, the plants are dependent on water supplied by precipitation. As this diagram shows, in places where the water table is near the land surface, such as next to lakes and oceans, plant roots can penetrate into the saturated zone below the water table, allowing the plants to transpire water directly from the groundwater system. Here, transpiration of groundwater commonly results in a drawdown of the water table much like the effect of a pumped well (cone of depression).

Sources and more information

The Water Cycle, NASA Earth Observatory
A Primer on Water, by Leopold, Luna, and Langbein, Walter, U.S. Geological Survey General Purpose Publication, 1960


Choose a water-cycle topic
Water storage in ice and snow Precipitation Snowmelt runoff to streams Infiltration Groundwater discharge Groundwater storage Water storage in oceans Evaporation Condensation Water storage in the atmosphere Evapotranspiration Surface runoff Streamflow Springs Freshwater storage Sublimation The water-cycle home page A - Storage in ice and snow
B - Precipitation
C - Snowmelt runoff to streams
D - Infiltration
E - Groundwater discharge
F - Groundwater storage
G - Water storage in oceans
H - Evaporation
I - Condensation
J - Water storage in the atmosphere
K - Evapotranspiration
L - Surface runoff
M - Streamflow
N - Springs
O - Freshwater storage
P - Sublimation

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Page Last Modified: Tuesday, 15-Apr-2014 08:31:38 EDT