Potential evaporation (PE) or potential evapotranspiration (PET) is defined as the amount of evaporation that would occur if a sufficient water source were available. If the actual evapotranspiration is considered the net result of atmospheric demand for moisture from a surface and the ability of the surface to supply moisture, then PET is a measure of the demand side. Surface and air temperatures, insolation, and wind all affect this. A dryland is a place where annual potential evaporation exceeds annual precipitation.
Estimates of potential evaporation
Thornthwaite equation (1948)
is the estimated potential evapotranspiration (mm/month)
is the average daily temperature (degrees Celsius; if this is negative, use ) of the month being calculated
is the number of days in the month being calculated
is the average day length (hours) of the month being calculated
Somewhat modified forms of this equation appear in later publications (1955 and 1957) by Thornthwaite and Mather. 
Penman equation (1948)
The Penman equation describes evaporation (E) from an open water surface, and was developed by Howard Penman in 1948. Penman's equation requires daily mean temperature, wind speed, air pressure, and solar radiation to predict E. Simpler Hydrometeorological equations continue to be used where obtaining such data is impractical, to give comparable results within specific contexts, e.g. humid vs arid climates.
Penman–Monteith equation (1965)
The Penman–Monteith equation refines weather based potential evapotranspiration (PET) estimates of vegetated land areas. It is widely regarded as one of the most accurate models, in terms of estimates.
The Priestley–Taylor equation was developed as a substitute to the Penman–Monteith equation to remove dependence on observations. For Priestley–Taylor, only radiation (irradiance) observations are required. This is done by removing the aerodynamic terms from the Penman–Monteith equation and adding an empirically derived constant factor, .
The underlying concept behind the Priestley–Taylor model is that an air mass moving above a vegetated area with abundant water would become saturated with water. In these conditions, the actual evapotranspiration would match the Penman rate of potential evapotranspiration. However, observations revealed that actual evaporation was 1.26 times greater than potential evaporation, and therefore the equation for actual evaporation was found by taking potential evapotranspiration and multiplying it by . The assumption here is for vegetation with an abundant water supply (i.e. the plants have low moisture stress). Areas like arid regions with high moisture stress are estimated to have higher values.
The assumption that an air mass moving over a vegetated surface with abundant water saturates has been questioned later. The lowest and turbulent part of the atmosphere, the atmospheric boundary layer, is not a closed box, but constantly brings in dry air from higher up in the atmosphere towards the surface. As water evaporates more easily into a dry atmosphere, evapotranspiration is enhanced. This explains the larger than unity value of the Priestley-Taylor parameter . The proper equilibrium of the system has been derived and involves the characteristics of the interface of the atmospheric boundary layer and the overlying free atmosphere.
- Thornthwaite, C. W. (1948). "An approach toward a rational classification of climate". Geographical Review. 38 (1): 55–94. doi:10.2307/210739. JSTOR 210739.
- Black, Peter E. (2007). "Revisiting the Thornthwaite and Mather water balance". Journal of the American Water Resources Association. 43 (6): 1604–1605. Bibcode:2007JAWRA..43.1604B. doi:10.1111/j.1752-1688.2007.00132.x.
- Allen, R.G.; Pereira, L.S.; Raes, D.; Smith, M. (1998). Crop Evapotranspiration—Guidelines for Computing Crop Water Requirements. FAO Irrigation and drainage paper 56. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 92-5-104219-5. Retrieved 2007-10-08.
- M. E. Jensen, R. D. Burman & R. G. Allen, ed. (1990). Evapotranspiration and Irrigation Water Requirement. ASCE Manuals and Reports on Engineering Practices. 70. New York, NY: American Society of Civil Engineers. ISBN 978-0-87262-763-5.
- Culf, A. (1994). "Equilibrium evaporation beneath a growing convective boundary layer". Boundary-Layer Meteorology. 70 (1–2): 34–49. Bibcode:1994BoLMe..70...37C. doi:10.1007/BF00712522.
- van Heerwaarden, C. C.; et al. (2009). "Interactions between dry-air entrainment, surface evaporation and convective boundary layer development". Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. 135 (642): 1277–1291. Bibcode:2009QJRMS.135.1277V. doi:10.1002/qj.431.
- Penman, H.L. (1948). "Natural evaporation from open water, bare soil, and grass". Proc. Roy. Soc. London, U.K. A193 (1032): 120–145. Bibcode:1948RSPSA.193..120P. doi:10.1098/rspa.1948.0037. PMID 18865817.
- Brutsaert, W.H. (1982). Evaporation into the Atmosphere: theory, history, and applications. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel. ISBN 90-277-1247-6.
- Bonan, Gordon (2002). Ecological Climatology. Cambridge, U.K.: CUP. ISBN 0-521-80476-0.
- ag.arizona.edu Global map of potential evaporation.