Disturbances from wind, bark beetles and wildfires have increased in Europe’s forests throughout the twentieth century1. Climatic changes were identified as a key driver behind this increase2, yet how the expected continuation of climate change will affect Europe’s forest disturbance regime remains unresolved. Increasing disturbances could strongly impact the forest carbon budget3,4, and are suggested to contribute to the recently observed carbon sink saturation in Europe’s forests5. Here we show that forest disturbance damage in Europe has continued to increase in the first decade of the twenty-first century. On the basis of an ensemble of climate change scenarios we find that damage from wind, bark beetles and forest fires is likely to increase further in coming decades, and estimate the rate of increase to be +0.91 × 106 m3 of timber per year until 2030. We show that this intensification can offset the effect of management strategies aiming to increase the forest carbon sink, and calculate the disturbance-related reduction of the carbon storage potential in Europe’s forests to be 503.4 Tg C in 2021–2030. Our results highlight the considerable carbon cycle feedbacks of changing disturbance regimes, and underline that future forest policy and management will require a stronger focus on disturbance risk and resilience.
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R.S. and W.R. acknowledge financial support from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), project no.: P25503-B16. R.S. has received further support from a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant (grant agreement no. PCIG12-GA-2012-334104) and the collaborative project FORMIT (grant agreement no. 311970), both funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration. M-J.S. acknowledges financial support from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme projects MOTIVE (grant agreement no. 226544) and GHG-Europe (grant agreement no. 244122), and has received further support from the strategic research program KBIV ‘Sustainable spatial development of ecosystems, landscapes, seas and regions’, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. P.J.V. acknowledges support from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme collaborative projects Volante (grant agreement no. 265104) and GHG-Europe (grant agreement no. 244122). We are grateful to C. Reyer and P. Lasch for providing data on climate scenarios and growth responses to the study. We furthermore acknowledge G. Hengeveld for support in data processing, and G-J. Nabuurs for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.