Evapotranspiration integrates atmospheric demand and surface conditions. The Penman-Monteith equation was used to calculate annual and seasonal reference evapotranspiration (ET0) and thermodynamic and aerodynamic components (ETrad and ETaero) at 77 stations across northeast China, 1961–2010. The results were: (1) annual ETrad and ETaero had different regional distribution, annual ETrad values decreased from south to north, whereas the highest ETaero values were recorded in the eastern and western regions, the lowest in the central region; (2) seasonal ETaero distributions were similar to seasonal ET0, with a south–north longitudinal pattern, while seasonal ETrad distributions had a latitudinal east-west pattern; and (3) in the group for ET0 containing 69 sampling stations, effects of climatic variables on ET0 followed sunshine hours > relative humidity > maximum temperature > wind speed. Changes in sunshine hours had the greatest effect on ETrad, but wind speed and relative humidity were the most important variables to ETaero. The decline in sunshine duration, wind speed, or both over the study period appeared to be the major cause of reduced potential evapotranspiration in most of NEC. Wind speed had opposite effects on ETrad and ETaero, and therefore the effect of wind speed on ET0 was not significant.