Disturbance has variable effects on the structural complexity of a temperate forest landscape

TitleDisturbance has variable effects on the structural complexity of a temperate forest landscape
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsGough CM, Atkins JW, Fahey RT, Curtis PS, Bohrer G, Hardiman BS, Hickey LJ, Nave LE, Niedermaier KM, Clay C, Tallant JM, Bond-Lamberty B
JournalEcological Indicators
Date PublishedJan-07-2022

The temporal dynamics of forest canopy structure are influenced by disturbances that alter vegetation quantity and distribution. While canopy structural indicators such as leaf area index (LAI), canopy cover, and canopy height have been widely studied in the context of disturbance, the post-disturbance temporal dynamics of structural complexity, which summarizes the heterogeneity of vegetation arrangement, are poorly understood. With the goal of advancing conceptual and empirical understanding of the temporal dynamics of structural complexity following disturbance, we synthesized results from three large-scale disturbance manipulation experiments at the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS): the 4-year Forest Resilience Threshold Experiment (FoRTE) manipulating levels of disturbance severity; the decade-long Forest Accelerated Succession Experiment (FASET), in which all early successional tree species were stem-girdled within 39 ha in the same landscape; and forest chronosequences established following clear-cut harvesting. We found that the temporal dynamics of canopy structure following disturbance were dependent upon three factors: (1) the source and severity of disturbance; (2) the spatial and temporal scales of analysis; and (3) the measure of structure assessed. Unlike vegetation area index and canopy cover, which initially decreased in response to disturbance, structural complexity measures such as canopy and top rugosity did not consistently respond to moderate levels of disturbance severity. Over multi-decadal timescales, structural complexity increased to a maximum, regardless of whether fire occurred at the time of stand establishment, but intervening low-to-moderate severity disturbance in regrown century-old forests altered trajectories of canopy rugosity. We conclude that structural complexity indicators display a more nuanced temporal and directional response to disturbance than conventional leaf area and cover indexes. Predicting what disturbance conditions modify trajectories of structural complexity remains critical to disturbance characterization and the inference of ecosystem functioning.

Short TitleEcological Indicators