Important role of forest disturbances in the global biomass turnover and carbon sinks


Forest disturbances that lead to the replacement of whole tree stands are a cornerstone of forest dynamics, with drivers that include fire, windthrow, biotic outbreaks and harvest. The frequency of disturbances may change over the next century with impacts on the age, composition and biomass of forests. However, the disturbance return time, that is, the mean interval between disturbance events, remains poorly characterized across the world’s forested biomes, which hinders the quantification of the role of disturbances in the global carbon cycle. Here we present the global distribution of stand-replacing disturbance return times inferred from satellite-based observations of forest loss. Prescribing this distribution within a vegetation model with a detailed representation of stand structure, we quantify the importance of stand-replacing disturbances for biomass carbon turnover globally over 2001–2014. The return time varied from less than 50 years in heavily managed temperate ecosystems to over 1,000 years in tropical evergreen forests. Stand-replacing disturbances accounted for 12.3% (95% confidence interval, 11.4–13.7%) of the annual biomass carbon turnover due to tree mortality globally, and in 44% of the forested area, biomass stocks are strongly sensitive to changes in the disturbance return time. Relatively small shifts in disturbance regimes in these areas would substantially influence the forest carbon sink that currently limits climate change by offsetting emissions.

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Fig. 1: Forest-disturbance rotation periods.
Fig. 2: Carbon turnover fluxes from closed-canopy forests for 2001–2014.
Fig. 3: Sensitivity of biomass to changes in τ.

Data availability

Calculations of τO, data from the model simulations and the forest mask used are available from (, and GFAD v1.1 was obtained from PANGAEA (, and the Global Forest Change 2000–2014 v1.2 forest loss product from The ESA CCI Landcover v2.0.7 was obtained from

Code availability

The Matlab code for the data analysis herein is available from GitHub, The source code for LPJ-GUESS v4.0 can be obtained on request through Lund University (


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T.A.M.P. acknowledges funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 758873, TreeMort). T.A.M.P., A.A. and M.K. acknowledge support from EU FP7 grant LUC4C (grant no. 603542) and the Helmholtz Association in its ATMO programme and its impulse and networking fund. This is paper number 36 of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research. B.S. acknowledges funding from the Swedish Research Council FORMAS, the Strategic Research Area BECC and the Lund University Centre for Studies of Carbon Cycle and Climate Interactions (LUCCI). B.P. was supported by the NASA Terrestrial Ecology program. S. Hantson, S. Archibald, J. Sadler, T. Matthews and S. Petrovskii are thanked for discussions that helped improve the manuscript, as are M. Wulder for providing the Canadian ecozones mask, E. Ferranti for help with file conversion and V. Lehsten for assistance with the data deposition.

Author information

T.A.M.P. conceived and designed the study with contributions from A.A. and B.S. B.P. and M.K. contributed data. T.A.M.P. carried out the model simulations. T.A.M.P. led the analysis and wrote the paper with contributions from all the authors.

Correspondence to Thomas A. M. Pugh.

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Supplementary description, Supplementary Figs. 1–13 and Supplementary Tables 1 and 2.

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