, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 142-157

Observation of Trends in Biomass Loss as a Result of Disturbance in the Conterminous U.S.: 1986–2004

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Abstract

The critical role of forests in the global carbon cycle is well known, but significant uncertainties remain about the specific role of disturbance, in part because of the challenge of incorporating spatial and temporal detail in the characterization of disturbance processes. In this study, we link forest inventory data to remote sensing data to derive estimates of pre- and post-disturbance biomass, and then use near-annual remote sensing observations of forest disturbance to characterize biomass loss associated with disturbance across the conterminous U.S. between 1986 and 2004. Nationally, year-to-year variability in the amount of live aboveground carbon lost as a result of disturbance ranged from a low of 61 T g C (±16) in 1991 to a high of 84 T g C (±33) in 2003. Eastern and western forest strata were relatively balanced in terms of their proportional contribution to national-level trends, despite eastern forests having more than twice the area of western forests. In the eastern forest stratum, annual biomass loss tracked closely with the area of disturbance, whereas in the western forest stratum, annual biomass loss showed more year-to-year variability that did not directly correspond to the area of disturbance, suggesting that the biomass density of forests affected by disturbance in the west was more spatially and temporally variable. Eastern and western forest strata exhibited somewhat opposing trends in biomass loss, potentially corresponding to the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan in the mid 1990s that resulted in a shift of timber harvesting from public lands in the northwest to private lands in the south. Overall, these observations document modest increases in disturbance rates and associated carbon consequences over the 18-year period. These changes are likely not significant enough to weaken a growing forest carbon sink in the conterminous U.S. based largely on increased forest growth rates and biomass densities.

Author Contributions

SLP, WBC, REK, SPH, and CH conceived study and developed methods; SLP, REK, and CH analyzed data; SLP and WBC wrote the article; REK, SPH, and CH contributed to writing the article.