skip to main content

Title: Long-Term Ecological Research and Evolving Frameworks of Disturbance Ecology
Abstract Detecting and understanding disturbance is a challenge in ecology that has grown more critical with global environmental change and the emergence of research on social–ecological systems. We identify three areas of research need: developing a flexible framework that incorporates feedback loops between social and ecological systems, anticipating whether a disturbance will change vulnerability to other environmental drivers, and incorporating changes in system sensitivity to disturbance in the face of global changes in environmental drivers. In the present article, we review how discoveries from the US Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network have influenced theoretical paradigms in disturbance ecology, and we refine a framework for describing social–ecological disturbance that addresses these three challenges. By operationalizing this framework for seven LTER sites spanning distinct biomes, we show how disturbance can maintain or alter ecosystem state, drive spatial patterns at landscape scales, influence social–ecological interactions, and cause divergent outcomes depending on other environmental changes.
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Award ID(s):
1832229 1237517 1801244 1832221 1929393 1831937 1832194 1832016 1855277 1637661
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
141 to 156
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Disturbances fundamentally alter ecosystem functions, yet predicting their impacts remains a key scientific challenge. While the study of disturbances is ubiquitous across many ecological disciplines, there is no agreed-upon, cross-disciplinary foundation for discussing or quantifying the complexity of disturbances, and no consistent terminology or methodologies exist. This inconsistency presents an increasingly urgent challenge due to accelerating global change and the threat of interacting disturbances that can destabilize ecosystem responses. By harvesting the expertise of an interdisciplinary cohort of contributors spanning 42 institutions across 15 countries, we identified an essential limitation in disturbance ecology: the word ‘disturbance’ is used interchangeably tomore »refer to both the events that cause, and the consequences of, ecological change, despite fundamental distinctions between the two meanings. In response, we developed a generalizable framework of ecosystem disturbances, providing a well-defined lexicon for understanding disturbances across perspectives and scales. The framework results from ideas that resonate across multiple scientific disciplines and provides a baseline standard to compare disturbances across fields. This framework can be supplemented by discipline-specific variables to provide maximum benefit to both inter- and intra-disciplinary research. To support future syntheses and meta-analyses of disturbance research, we also encourage researchers to be explicit in how they define disturbance drivers and impacts, and we recommend minimum reporting standards that are applicable regardless of scale. Finally, we discuss the primary factors we considered when developing a baseline framework and propose four future directions to advance our interdisciplinary understanding of disturbances and their social-ecological impacts: integrating across ecological scales, understanding disturbance interactions, establishing baselines and trajectories, and developing process-based models and ecological forecasting initiatives. Our experience through this process motivates us to encourage the wider scientific community to continue to explore new approaches for leveraging Open Science principles in generating creative and multidisciplinary ideas.« less
  2. Urban areas are dynamic ecological systems defined by interdependent biological, physical, and social components. The emergent structure and heterogeneity of urban landscapes drives biotic outcomes in these areas, and such spatial patterns are often attributed to the unequal stratification of wealth and power in human societies. Despite these patterns, few studies have effectively considered structural inequalities as drivers of ecological and evolutionary outcomes and have instead focused on indicator variables such as neighborhood wealth. In this analysis, we explicitly integrate ecology, evolution, and social processes to emphasize the relationships that bind social inequities—specifically racism—and biological change in urbanized landscapes. Wemore »draw on existing research to link racist practices, including residential segregation, to the heterogeneous patterns of flora and fauna observed by urban ecologists. In the future, urban ecology and evolution researchers must consider how systems of racial oppression affect the environmental factors that drive biological change in cities. Conceptual integration of the social and ecological sciences has amassed considerable scholarship in urban ecology over the past few decades, providing a solid foundation for incorporating environmental justice scholarship into urban ecological and evolutionary research. Such an undertaking is necessary to deconstruct urbanization’s biophysical patterns and processes, inform equitable and anti-racist initiatives promoting justice in urban conservation, and strengthen community resilience to global environmental change.

    « less
  3. Many research and monitoring networks in recent decades have provided publicly available data documenting environmental and ecological change, but little is known about the status of efforts to synthesize this information across networks. We convened a working group to assess ongoing and potential cross‐network synthesis research and outline opportunities and challenges for the future, focusing on the US‐based research network (the US Long‐Term Ecological Research network, LTER) and monitoring network (the National Ecological Observatory Network, NEON). LTER‐NEON cross‐network research synergies arise from the potentials for LTER measurements, experiments, models, and observational studies to provide context and mechanisms for interpreting NEONmore »data, and for NEON measurements to provide standardization and broad scale coverage that complement LTER studies. Initial cross‐network syntheses at co‐located sites in the LTER and NEON networks are addressing six broad topics: how long‐term vegetation change influences C fluxes; how detailed remotely‐sensed data reveal vegetation structure and function; aquatic‐terrestrial connections of nutrient cycling; ecosystem response to soil biogeochemistry and microbial processes; population and species responses to environmental change; and disturbance, stability and resilience. This initial work offers exciting potentials for expanded cross‐network syntheses involving multiple long‐term ecosystem processes at regional or continental scales. These potential syntheses could provide a pathway for the broader scientific community, beyond LTER and NEON, to engage in cross‐network science. These examples also apply to many other research and monitoring networks in the US and globally, and can guide scientists and research administrators in promoting broad‐scale research that supports resource management and environmental policy.« less
  4. Ecosystems across the United States are changing in complex and surprising ways. Ongoing demand for critical ecosystem services requires an understanding of the populations and communities in these ecosystems in the future. This paper represents a synthesis effort of the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network addressing the core research area of “populations and communities.” The objective of this effort was to show the importance of long-term data collection and experiments for addressing the hardest questions in scientific ecology that have significant implications for environmental policy and management. Each LTER site developed at least one compelling casemore »study about what their site could look like in 50–100 yr as human and environmental drivers influencing specific ecosystems change. As the case studies were prepared, five themes emerged, and the studies were grouped into papers in this LTER Futures Special Feature addressing state change, connectivity, resilience, time lags, and cascading effects. This paper addresses the “connectivity” theme and has examples from the Phoenix (urban), Niwot Ridge (alpine tundra), McMurdo Dry Valleys (polar desert), Plum Island (coastal), Santa Barbara Coastal (coastal), and Jornada (arid grassland and shrubland) sites. Connectivity has multiple dimensions, ranging from multi-scalar interactions in space to complex interactions over time that govern the transport of materials and the distribution and movement of organisms. The case studies presented here range widely, showing how land-use legacies interact with climate to alter the structure and function of arid ecosystems and flows of resources and organisms in Antarctic polar desert, alpine, urban, and coastal marine ecosystems. Long-term ecological research demonstrates that connectivity can, in some circumstances, sustain valuable ecosystem functions, such as the persistence of foundation species and their associated biodiversity or, it can be an agent of state change, as when it increases wind and water erosion. Increased connectivity due to warming can also lead to species range expansions or contractions and the introduction of undesirable species. Continued long-term studies are essential for addressing the complexities of connectivity. The diversity of ecosystems within the LTER network is a strong platform for these studies.« less
  5. Abstract This paper synthesizes the contemporary challenges for the sustainability of the social-environmental system (SES) across a geographically, environmentally, and geopolitically diverse region—the Asian Drylands Belt (ADB). This region includes 18 political entities, covering 10.3% of global land area and 30% of total global drylands. At the present time, the ADB is confronted with a unique set of environmental and socioeconomic changes including water shortage-related environmental challenges and dramatic institutional changes since the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The SES of the ADB is assessed using a conceptual framework rooted in the three pillars of sustainability science:more »social, economic, and ecological systems. The complex dynamics are explored with biophysical, socioeconomic, institutional, and local context-dependent mechanisms with a focus on institutions and land use and land cover change (LULCC) as important drivers of SES dynamics. This paper also discusses the following five pressing, practical challenges for the sustainability of the ADB SES: (a) reduced water quantity and quality under warming, drying, and escalating extreme events, (b) continued, if not intensifying, geopolitical conflicts, (c) volatile, uncertain, and shifting socioeconomic structures, (d) globalization and cross-country influences, and (e) intensification and shifts in LULCC. To meet the varied challenges across the region, place-based, context-dependent transdisciplinary approaches are needed to focus on the human-environment interactions within and between regional landscapes with explicit consideration of specific forcings and regulatory mechanisms. Future work focused on this region should also assess the role of the following mechanisms that may moderate SES dynamics: socioeconomic regulating mechanisms, biophysical regulating mechanisms, regional and national institutional regulating mechanisms, and localized institutional regulating mechanisms.« less