Natural and Anthropogenic Disturbance as Drivers of Ecosystem Change

Natural disturbances such as forest fire, wind throw, and insect and disease outbreaks can be important drivers of ecosystem dynamics. Human impacts, such as the changes in climate with industrialization, logging, accidental and intentional introduction of plants, and land use changes, also greatly affect ecosystem dynamics.

Whether the disturbance is fire, logging, wind, insect and/or disease outbreaks, or invasive species; disturbance changes forest structure and alters species composition and can accelerate succession.

In most boreal forests in central North America, the most common natural disturbances are crown and ground fires occurring at intervals shorter than the lifespan of dominant canopy trees. Extensive wind disturbance also has ecological importance in forest dynamics.

Traditionally, disturbance was thought to set back succession to some earlier stage. However, it's possible that some forest communities exhibit accelerated succession following a wide range of disturbances.

Funded by: Hubachek Wilderness Research Foundation


Peters, E.B., K. Wythers, J. Bradford, P.B. Reich. 2013. Influence of disturbance on temperate forest productivity. Ecosystems 16:95-110.

Carlson, D., P.B. Reich, L.E. Frelich. 2011. Fine-scale heterogeneity in overstory composition contributes to heterogeneity of wildfire severity in southern boreal forest. J Forest Research 16:203-214, doi:10.1007/s10310-011-0251-z.

Rich, R., Frelich, L., Reich, P., Bauer, M. 2010. Detecting wind-disturbance severity and canopy heterogeneity in boreal forest by coupling high-spatial resolution satellite imagery and field data. Remote Sensing of Environment 114:299–308.

Rich, R.L., L.E. Frelich, P.B. Reich. 2007. Wind-throw mortality in the southern boreal forest: effects of species, diameter and stand age. J Ecology 95:1261-1273.

Friedman, S.K. and P.B. Reich. 2005. Regional legacies of logging: Departure from presettlement forest conditions in northern Minnesota. Ecological Applications 15:726-744.