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ARS Home » Plains Area » Las Cruces, New Mexico » Range Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #269499

Title: Cross-system comparisons elucidate disturbance complexities and generalities

item Peters, Debra - Deb
item Lugo, Ariel
item Chapin, Iii, F. Stuart
item Pickett, Steward
item Duniway, Michael
item Rocha, Adrian
item Swanson, Frederick
item Laney, Christine
item Jones, Julia

Submitted to: Ecosphere
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 6/22/2011
Publication Date: 7/26/2011
Publication URL:
Citation: Peters, D.C., Lugo, A.E., Chapin, III, F., Pickett, S.T., Duniway, M.C., Rocha, A., Swanson, F., Laney, C., Jones, J. 2011. Cross-system comparisons elucidate disturbance complexities and generalities. Ecosphere. 2(7):Article 81.

Interpretive Summary: We provide a conceptual framework to synthesize the vast amount of literature available on effects of disturbance that will allow comparisons disturbance across different ecosystem types. This framework focuses on components of disturbance events (environmental drivers, physical and biological mechanisms of impact, initial system properties) that result in short-term consequences including biotic and abiotic legacies of the previous ecosystem state and long-term outcomes of ecosystem development. We use long-term data from the sites in the USDA (ARS, USFS) and Long-Term Ecological Research Network to develop and support our framework. We also show how our framework provides new insights and predictions under global change.

Technical Abstract: Given 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. 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, including rangelands, 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.