Application of multidimensional structural characterization to detect and describe moderate forest disturbance

TitleApplication of multidimensional structural characterization to detect and describe moderate forest disturbance
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsAtkins JW, Bond-Lamberty B, Fahey RT, Haber LT, Stuart‐Haëntjens E, Hardiman BS, LaRue E, McNeil BE, Orwig DA, Stovall AEL, Tallant JM, Walter JA, Gough CM
Date Published01/2020

The study of vegetation community and structural change has been central to ecology for over a century, yet the ways in which disturbances reshape the physical structure of forest canopies remain relatively unknown. Moderate severity disturbances affect different canopy strata and plant species, resulting in variable structural outcomes and ecological consequences. Terrestrial lidar (light detection and ranging) offers an unprecedented view of the interior arrangement and distribution of canopy elements, permitting the derivation of multidimensional measures of canopy structure that describe several canopy structural traits (CSTs) with known links to ecosystem function. We used lidar‐derived CSTs within a machine learning framework to detect and describe the structural changes that result from various disturbance agents, including moderate severity fire, ice storm damage, age‐related senescence, hemlock woolly adelgid, beech bark disease, and chronic acidification. We found that fire and ice storms primarily affected the amount and position of vegetation within canopies, while acidification, senescence, pathogen, and insect infestation altered canopy arrangement and complexity. Only two of the six disturbance agents significantly reduced leaf area, counter to common assumptions regarding many moderate severity disturbances. While findings are limited in their generalizability due to lack of replication among disturbances, they do suggest that the current limitations of standard disturbance detection methods—such as optical‐based remote sensing platforms, which are often above‐canopy perspectives—limit our ability to understand the full ecological and structural impacts of disturbance, and to evaluate the consistency of structural patterns within and among disturbance agents. A more broadly inclusive definition of ecological disturbance that incorporates multiple aspects of canopy structural change may potentially improve the modeling, detection, and prediction of functional implications of moderate severity disturbance as well as broaden our understanding of the ecological impacts of disturbance.

Short TitleEcosphere
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