All ecosystems are occasionally - sometimes more than occasionally - disturbed. That means there is a rapid change, some major disruption, to how the ecosystem normally behaves. The most familiar example is fire, but things like hurricanes, landslides, and freezing mortality also count. These disturbances are generally normal, a part of natural systems. But there are concerns about climate change. How is climate altering disturbance patterns? Are increases in disturbances causing more interactions between events, like wind damage causing increased fire intensity? What about emergent (novel) disturbances that we've never seen before?
Most importantly, what does this mean for ecosystem resilience? How will communities recover, change, or shift?
Disturbance events are significant study points because they can "break the legacy lock" of dominant species, in other words they can catalyze change in normally stable communities which generally resist change. These changes can last a long time - changes to vegetation, cover type, ecosystem services, and biogeochemical cycles. The plant and animal communities that result may be more or less resilient to climate change effects, more or less biodiverse, more or less in line with managerial needs. In other words, the consequences of these rapid and often unforseen events need to be studied so we can plan for the future and understand the present, which is the endpoint of historical climate and change processes.
Climate changing is causing the emergence of new disturbance phenomena, new ways in which ecosystems rapidly change and new challenges to ecosystem resilience - the ability of an ecosystem to regenerate post-disturbance. We're interested at a fundamental level in how disturbances impact ecosystems and what that means for resilience, regeneration, and the various ecosystem services that the landscape provides.
Undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, the community, and collaborators at all levels are consistently engaged in our work. It simply couldn't be done without collaborations. Asking complex questions requires input from other specialists, and implementing the lessons learned requires collaboration with management. Partners include NOAA, the USGS, the USFS, Sealaska regional Native corporation, local non-profit groups, National Geographic, and more.