About Us

The Center for Forest Disturbance Science (SRS-RWU-4156) focuses on the study of disturbance processes across scales and their risk of occurrence in order to develop innovative management strategies for reducing vulnerability of ecosystems to degradation.

Our scientists and support personnel conduct field, laboratory, computer modeling, and theoretical studies on disturbance dynamics and effects at multiple scales. Our unit has particular strengths in fire ecology, fire behavior, ecophysiology, soil ecology, meteorology, climatology, air quality, mathematical modeling, and restoration ecology. Our scientists have expertise in temperate and tropical pine and hardwood silviculture, and soil macroarthropod and earthworm taxonomy.

Our unit has locations in Athens, GA, Clemson, SC, and Knoxville, TN. Visit our Contact page for locations and staff information →

Research Focus Areas

Our mission: To increase understanding of disturbance processes, their ecosystem feedbacks and their risk in order to develop innovative management strategies for reducing ecosystem vulnerability while maintaining or improving ecosystem function and resilience.
Problem 1. Ecological disturbances and ecosystem responses

Disturbances are normal processes and southern ecosystems are adapted to a broad range of disturbances such as fire, wind, ice, drought and endemic pests. Human activity, including fire exclusion, landscape fragmentation and urban development, introduction of exotic species and forest management practices, has introduced novel disturbances or altered the spatial and temporal nature of “natural” disturbances. Understanding disturbance processes and effects and the response of ecosystems to single disturbance events as well as multiple interacting disturbances provides the scientific basis for sustainable ecosystem management.

Problem 1a. Understanding disturbance mechanisms and processes and how ecosystems respond to these events

Developing an understanding of a disturbance involves understanding the nature of the disturbance event in terms of frequency, intensity and spatial extent. It is also necessary to understand how the ecosystem responds to this range of disturbance events. Ecosystems may have low sensitivity to disturbances of a certain intensity and scale but different intensities and scales may lead to tipping points where the disturbance dramatically alters ecosystem structure and function.

Problem 1b. Understanding impacts of multiple disturbances on ecosystem resilience and response

The ability of an ecosystem to respond to a disturbance event is related to the disturbance history of the system. Improving our understanding of how legacies of past disturbance can impact ecosystem responses to future disturbances will allow for more tailored strategies for mitigating damage to ecosystems and/or managing ecosystem recovery following a contemporary disturbance event.

Problem 1c. Understanding disturbance regimes across landscapes

The distribution of disturbances across a landscape leads to a mosaic of patches of varying levels of disturbance. Understanding the dynamics of the interactions among patches across the landscape provides a more comprehensive theory of disturbance that recognizes the distinction between a disturbance agent and its immediate direct physical effects, and the subsequent cascade of secondary physical, biological, and geochemical effects that play out over time. Improved understanding of landscape dynamics will facilitate restoring natural disturbance regimes or their ecological surrogates onto landscapes.

Problem 2. Fire as a disturbance and a management tool

The Wildland fire and fuels R&D Strategic Plan as well as the Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy identified the need to improve the understanding of interactions between fire and the environment in order to develop the next generation of decision-support and predictive tools for fire and fuels management. Central to this effort is improved quantification of the role of fire as an ecosystem process in a changing environment and the effects of environmental change on fire regimes.

Problem 2a. Understanding the role of fire in ecosystems and linking fire behavior and fire effects

Fire is beneficial and sometimes essential to maintaining the structure and function of many ecosystems. Unfortunately, fire also has negative aspects, particularly as it relates to the human component of the ecosystem in terms of property damage from uncontrolled fires and adverse health impacts of smoke. To maintain fire as a land management tool, managers will need more quantitative information relating a fire to its ecological and societal effects. As prescribed fire becomes more attractive for management of previously unburned Southern ecosystems, there is a need for better information on firing techniques, fuels, and impacts to all components of the ecosystem. Impacts of long-term repeated prescribed burning are almost completely unknown for these areas.

Problem 2b. Understanding relationships between wildland fire and climate

A rudimentary description of the link between wildland fire and climate is that hotter and drier climatic conditions favor more numerous and larger wildland fires. Improving our understanding of climate cycles and how these cycles influence the weather patterns that alter regional precipitation patterns would improve our ability to forecast fire season severity and provide a better understanding of potential prescribed fire windows. Fires are also an integral component of the climate system through their emissions and alterations of the vegetative surface and understanding these feedback processes and how different these processes are for wildfires and prescribed fires would help inform policy decisions regarding prescribed fire use.

Problem 2c. Developing decision support systems to aid land managers in their application of fire across the landscape

Tighter air quality regulations are likely to start affecting land managers’ ability to use fire to meet management objectives. Climate change is also expected to alter the availability of suitable prescription windows to safely accomplish prescribed fires that meet resource objectives. Decision support tools are needed that allow managers to better quantify fire effects and link those effects to fire prescriptions. These new tools must be process based rather than simple linear correlation based tools to allow the tools to better function under changing environmental conditions.

Problem 3. Managing disturbances and enhancing ecosystem resilience

Sustainable management of southern ecosystems is challenged by multiple interacting disturbances, both biotic and abiotic. Some of the greatest threats to ecosystem health are posed by meteorological events that are by nature dynamic and affected by climate variability and subject to climate change. Managers need strategies and tools for reducing vulnerability of ecosystems to severe disturbance events, for sustainable management and for restoring or enhancing function to degraded ecosystems.

Problem 3a. Developing strategies for reducing vulnerability of southern ecosystems to severe disturbance events and climate change/variability

There is a growing consensus that climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies need to be considered simultaneously when developing forest and rangeland management plans. Any effort to optimize mitigation and adaptation strategies must recognize diverse ecological conditions as well as challenging governance and complex socio-cultural contexts. Transformational adaptations, responding to or anticipating climate change, are larger scale or more intense than incremental adaptations, or are novel by their nature or new to a region or resource system. Transformational adaptation may be planned or arise spontaneously. Climate change may degrade forests and rangeland through increased variability in the frequency and severity of extreme events. Extreme events such as natural disasters can create a window of opportunity for transformative activity, temporarily lowering institutional and social barriers to change, allowing for “directed transformation” . Some climate model projections feature greater climate variability in the future than one would expect from gradual shifting of means; these so-called no-analog climates could occur where conditions will change rapidly, well beyond the ability of plants species to adapt. Given the uncertainties in climate, social, and ecological systems that compound into “spatiotemporal chaos,” much knowledge needs to be discovered about coupled climate-ecological-social systems.

Problem 3b. Developing methods for restoring ecosystems degraded by natural disasters and anthropogenic activity

The common objectives of contemporary restoration are to enlarge the area of specific ecosystems, protect or enhance biodiversity, or to repair ecosystem functions. New objectives for restoration under climate change are to reduce carbon emissions (mitigation) or alter management (adaptation). Adapting to altered climates requires restoring ecosystems that are resistant to or resilient in the face of change. This will require restoration practitioners to change focus and look forwards, not backwards. In seeking to restore robust, resilient forests and rangeland we must set a balance between rebuilding past ecosystems and building resilient systems for the future.

Problem 3c. Sustainable landscapes are stable and productive ecosystems that conserve the physical and biological processes occurring on these landscapes

The USDA Strategic Goals call for assisting rural communities to create prosperity so they are self-sustaining, repopulating, and economically thriving. Rural communities rely on their natural resources for sustenance, income, and societal well-being. Sustainable landscapes means promoting sustainable planning and management in all landscapes, including low emissions development and “green growth.”

View our unit charter →

Our Unit’s Teams

Atmospheric Science Team

The Atmospheric Science Team studies atmospheric aspects of forest disturbance such as fire-atmosphere interactions, smoke management, climate change and wind damage to forests.

Fire Science Team

The Fire Science Team specializes in studying fire behavior and ecology in the southeastern US and tropical and subtropical ecosystems.

Restoration and Invasive Species Team

The Restoration and Invasive Species Team focuses on management practices to restore fire dependent ecosystems of the southeastern US. We also study the impacts of non-native invasive species, and work to mitigate the risks associated with these organisms through development of new management practices.

Administrative Team

The people who make things work.