Cross-system comparisons elucidate disturbance complexities and generalities

TitleCross-system comparisons elucidate disturbance complexities and generalities
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsPeters DC, Lugo AE, Chapin, III F.S., Pickett STA, Duniway MC, Rocha AV, Swanson F.J, Laney C, Jones J
Start Page1
PaginationArticle 81
Date Published07/2011
Accession NumberJRN00559
ARIS Log Number269499
Keywordsdisburbance event, disturbance type, drought, ecological theory, global change, hurricane legacies, overgrazing, thresholds, wildfire
AbstractGiven that ecological effects of disturbance have been extensively studied in many ecosystems, it is surprising that few quantitative syntheses across diverse ecosystems have been conducted. Multi-system studies tend to be qualitative because they focus on disturbance types that are difficult to measure in an ecologically relevant way. In addition, synthesis of existing studies across systems or disturbance types is challenging because sufficient information needed for analysis is not easily available. Theoretical advances and improved predictions can be advanced by generalizations obtained from synthesis activities that include multiple sites, ecosystems, and disturbance events. Building on existing research, we present a conceptual framework and an operational analog to integrate this rich body of knowledge and to promote quantitative comparisons of disturbance effects across different types of ecosystems and disturbances. This framework recognizes individual disturbance events that consist of three quantifiable components: (1) environmental drivers, (2) initial system properties, and (3) physical and biological mechanisms of effect, such as deposition, compaction, and combustion. These components result in biotic and abiotic legacies that can interact with subsequent drivers and successional processes to influence system response. Through time, a coarse-scale quasi-equilibrial state can be reached where variation in drivers interacting with biotic processes and feedbacks internal to the system results in variability in dynamics. At any time, a driver of sufficient magnitude can push the system beyond its realm of natural variability to initiate a new kind of event. We use long-term data from diverse terrestrial ecosystems to illustrate how our approach can facilitate cross-system comparisons, and provide new insights to the role of disturbance in ecological systems. We also provide key disturbance characteristics and measurements needed to promote future quantitative comparisons across ecosystems.