Disturbance and the carbon balance of US forests: A quantitative review of impacts from harvests, fires, insects, and droughts

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Disturbances are a major determinant of forest carbon stocks and uptake. They generally reduce land carbon stocks but also initiate a regrowth legacy that contributes substantially to the contemporary rate of carbon stock increase in US forestlands. As managers and policy makers increasingly look to forests for climate protection and mitigation, and because of increasing concern about changes in disturbance intensity and frequency, there is a need for synthesis and integration of current understanding about the role of disturbances and other processes in governing forest carbon cycle dynamics, and the likely future of this and other sinks for atmospheric carbon. This paper aims to address that need by providing a quantitative review of the distribution, extent and carbon impacts of the major disturbances active in the US. We also review recent trends in disturbances, climate, and other global environmental changes and consider their individual and collective contributions to the US carbon budget now and in the likely future. Lastly, we identify some key challenges and opportunities for future research needed to improve current understanding, advance predictive capabilities, and inform forest management in the face of these pressures.Harvest is found to be the most extensive disturbance both in terms of area and carbon impacts, followed by fire, windthrow and bark beetles, and lastly droughts. Collectively these lead to the gross loss of about 200 Tg C y-1 in live biomass annually across the conterminous US. At the same time, the net change in forest carbon stocks is positive (190 Tg C y-1), indicating not only forest resilience but also an apparently large response to growth enhancements such as fertilization by CO2 and nitrogen. Uncertainty about disturbance legacies, disturbance interactions, likely trends, and global change factors make the future of the US forest carbon sink unclear. While there is scope for management to enhance carbon sinks in US forests, tradeoffs with other values and uses are likely to significantly limit practical implementation. Continued and expanded remote sensing and field-based monitoring capabilities and manipulative experimentation are needed to improve understanding of the US forest carbon sink, and assess how disturbance processes are responding to the pressures of global environmental change. In addition, continued development and application of holistic, decision support tools that consider a range of forest values are needed to enable managers and policy makers to use the best available information for guiding forest resources now and into the future.

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Global and Planetary Change

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