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Landscape Patterns and Legacies Resulting from Large, Infrequent Forest Disturbances


We review and compare well-studied examples of five large, infrequent disturbances (LIDs)—fire, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and floods—in terms of the physical processes involved, the damage patterns they create in forested landscapes, and the potential impacts of those patterns on subsequent forest development. Our examples include the 1988 Yellowstone fires, the 1938 New England hurricane, the 1985 Tionesta tornado, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and the 1993 Mississippi floods. The resulting landscape patterns are strongly controlled by interactions between the specific disturbance, the abiotic environment (especially topography), and the composition and structure of the vegetation at the time of the disturbance. The very different natures of these interactions yield distinctive temporal and spatial patterns and demand that ecologists increase their knowledge of the physical characteristics of disturbance processes. Floods and fires can occur over a long period, whereas volcanic eruptions and wind-driven events often last for no more than a few hours or days. Tornadoes and floods produce linear patterns with sharp edges, but fires, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes can affect broader areas, often with gradual transitions of disturbance intensity. In all cases, the evidence suggests that LIDs produce enduring legacies of physical and biological structure that influence ecosystem processes for decades or centuries.

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Received 14 July 1998; accepted 6 October 1998.

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Foster, D., Knight, D. & Franklin, J. Landscape Patterns and Legacies Resulting from Large, Infrequent Forest Disturbances. Ecosystems 1, 497–510 (1998).

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  • Key words: disturbance; forest ecosystem; landscape; legacy; fire; hurricane; tornado; volcano; flood; Mount St. Helens; Yellowstone fires; Mississippi River.