Legacy effects in material flux: structural catchment changes predate long-term studies
Legacy effects of past land use and disturbance are increasingly recognized, yet consistent definitions of and criteria for defining them do not exist. To address this gap in biological- and ecosystem-assessment frameworks, we propose a general metric for evaluating potential legacy effects, which are computed by normalizing altered system function persistence with duration of disturbance. We also propose two distinct legacy-effect categories: signal effects from lags in transport and structural effects from physical landscape changes. Using flux records for water, sediment, nitrogen, and carbon from long-term study sites in the eastern United States from 1500 to 2000, we identify gaps in our understanding of legacy effects and reveal that changes in basin sediment dynamics precede instrumented records. These sediment dynamics are not generally incorporated into interpretations of contemporary records, although their potential legacy effects are substantial. The identification of legacy effects may prove to be a fundamental component of landscape management and effective conservation and restoration practice.