Vegetation modulates Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles. How its functions might change in the future largely depends on how it copes with droughts1–4. There is evidence that, in places and times of drought, vegetation shifts water uptake to deeper soil5–7 and rock8,9 moisture as well as groundwater10–12. Here we differentiate and assess plant use of four types of water sources: precipitation in the current month (source 1), past precipitation stored in deeper unsaturated soils and/or rocks (source 2), past precipitation stored in groundwater (source 3, locally recharged) and groundwater from precipitation fallen on uplands via river–groundwater convergence toward lowlands (source 4, remotely recharged). We examine global and seasonal patterns and drivers in plant uptake of the four sources using inverse modelling and isotope-based estimates. We find that (1), globally and annually, 70% of plant transpiration relies on source 1, 18% relies on source 2, only 1% relies on source 3 and 10% relies on source 4; (2) regionally and seasonally, source 1 is only 19% in semi-arid, 32% in Mediterranean and 17% in winter-dry tropics in the driest months; and (3) at landscape scales, source 2, taken up by deep roots in the deep vadose zone, is critical in uplands in dry months, but source 4 is up to 47% in valleys where riparian forests and desert oases are found. Because the four sources originate from different places and times, move at different spatiotemporal scales and respond with different sensitivity to climate and anthropogenic forces, understanding the space and time origins of plant water sources can inform ecosystem management and Earth system models on the critical hydrological pathways linking precipitation to vegetation.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes