Observations and assessment of forest carbon dynamics following disturbance in North America
Disturbance processes of various types substantially modify ecosystem carbon dynamics both temporally and spatially, and constitute a fundamental part of larger landscape-level dynamics. Forests typically lose carbon for several years to several decades following severe disturbance, but our understanding of the duration and dynamics of post-disturbance forest carbon fluxes remains limited. Here we capitalize on a recent North American Carbon Program disturbance synthesis to discuss techniques and future work needed to better understand carbon dynamics after forest disturbance. Specifically, this paper addresses three topics: (1) the history, spatial distribution, and characteristics of different types of disturbance (in particular fire, insects, and harvest) in North America; (2) the integrated measurements and experimental designs required to quantify forest carbon dynamics in the years and decades after disturbance, as presented in a series of case studies; and (3) a synthesis of the greatest uncertainties spanning these studies, as well as the utility of multiple types of observations (independent but mutually constraining data) in understanding their dynamics. The case studies—in the southeast U.S., central boreal Canada, U.S. Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest—explore how different measurements can be used to constrain and understand carbon dynamics in regrowing forests, with the most important measurements summarized for each disturbance type. We identify disturbance severity and history as key but highly uncertain factors driving post-disturbance carbon source-sink dynamics across all disturbance types. We suggest that imaginative, integrative analyses using multiple lines of evidence, increased measurement capabilities, shared models and online data sets, and innovative numerical algorithms hold promise for improved understanding and prediction of carbon dynamics in disturbance-prone forests.