Explainer: Evapotranspiration and Droughts

Ronald L. Hanson, U. S. Geological Survey

The lower 5 miles of the atmosphere transports an average of about 40,000 billion gallons of water vapor over the conterminous United States each day (U.S. Geological Survey, 1984). Slightly more than 10 percent of this moisture, however, is precipitated as rain, sleet, hail, or snow. The pie chart illustrates the disposition of this precipitation in the conterminous United States.

As shown, the greatest proportion, about 67 percent, returns to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, about 29 percent is discharged from the conterminous United States as net surface-water outflow into the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and across the borders into Canada and Mexico, about 2 percent is discharged as ground-water outflow, and about 2 percent is consumed by people, animals, plants, and industrial and commercial processes (U.S. Geological Survey, 1990). For most of the United States, evaporation returns less moisture to the atmosphere than does transpiration.