How do leaf and ecosystem measures of water-use efficiency compare?

Belinda E. Medlyn*, Martin G. De Kauwe, Yan Shih Lin, Jürgen Knauer, Remko A. Duursma, Christopher A. Williams, Almut Arneth, Rob Clement, Peter Isaac, Jean Marc Limousin, Maj Lena Linderson, Patrick Meir, Nicolas Martin-Stpaul, Lisa Wingate

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

117 Citations (Scopus)


The terrestrial carbon and water cycles are intimately linked: the carbon cycle is driven by photosynthesis, while the water balance is dominated by transpiration, and both fluxes are controlled by plant stomatal conductance. The ratio between these fluxes, the plant water-use efficiency (WUE), is a useful indicator of vegetation function. WUE can be estimated using several techniques, including leaf gas exchange, stable isotope discrimination, and eddy covariance. Here we compare global compilations of data for each of these three techniques. We show that patterns of variation in WUE across plant functional types (PFTs) are not consistent among the three datasets. Key discrepancies include the following: leaf-scale data indicate differences between needleleaf and broadleaf forests, but ecosystem-scale data do not; leaf-scale data indicate differences between C3 and C4 species, whereas at ecosystem scale there is a difference between C3 and C4 crops but not grasslands; and isotope-based estimates of WUE are higher than estimates based on gas exchange for most PFTs. Our study quantifies the uncertainty associated with different methods of measuring WUE, indicates potential for bias when using WUE measures to parameterize or validate models, and indicates key research directions needed to reconcile alternative measures of WUE.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)758-770
Number of pages13
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was funded by ARC Discovery Grant DP120104055. This work used eddy covariance data acquired by the FLUXNET community and, in particular, by the following networks: AmeriFlux (US Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Carbon Program (DE-FG02-04ER63917 and DE-FG02-04ER63911)), AfriFlux, AsiaFlux, CarboAfrica, CarboEuropeIP, CarboItaly, CarboMont, ChinaFlux, Fluxnet-Canada (supported by CFCAS, NSERC, BIOCAP, Environment Canada, and NRCan), GreenGrass, KoFlux, LBA, NECC, OzFlux, TCOS-Siberia, USCCC. We acknowledge the financial support for the eddy covariance data harmonization provided by CarboEuropeIP, FAO-GTOS-TCO, iLEAPS, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, National Science Foundation, University of Tuscia, Universite? Laval and Environment Canada and US Department of Energy and the database development and technical support from Berkeley Water Center, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Microsoft Research eScience, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of California-Berkeley, and University of Virginia. We thank Will Cornwell for making the stable isotope database available in advance of publication, and Wang Han for extracting the VPD data corresponding to isotope data. We also thank Trevor Keenan, Colin Prentice and Ian Wright for valuable discussions on this topic.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Authors New Phytologist.


  • Eddy covariance
  • Leaf gas exchange
  • Plant functional type (PFT)
  • Stable isotopes
  • Stomatal conductance
  • Water-use efficiency


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