Evaporative demand, measured by pan evaporation, has declined in many regions over the last several decades. It is important to understand why. Here we use a generic physical model based on mass and energy balances to attribute pan evaporation changes to changes in radiation, temperature, humidity and wind speed. We tested the approach at 41 Australian sites for the period 1975–2004. Changes in temperature and humidity regimes were generally too small to impact pan evaporation rates. The observed decreases in pan evaporation were mostly due to decreasing wind speed with some regional contributions from decreasing solar irradiance. Decreasing wind speeds of similar magnitude has been reported in the United States, China, the Tibetan Plateau and elsewhere. The pan evaporation record is invaluable in unraveling the aerodynamic and radiative drivers of the hydrologic cycle, and the attribution approach described here can be used for that purpose.