Forest Structural Complexity and Net Primary Production Resilience Across a Gradient of Disturbance in a Great Lakes Ecosystem

Haber, Lisa T.  MS Thesis.

Forests are an important component of the global carbon (C) cycle and contribute to climate change mitigation through atmospheric C uptake and storage in biomass and soils. However, the forest C sink is susceptible to disturbance, which modifies physical and biological structure and limits spatial extent of forests. Unlike severe, stand-replacing disturbances that reset forest successional trajectories and may simplify ecosystem structure, moderate severity disturbances may instead introduce complexity in ways that sustain net primary production (NPP), leading to the phenomenon of “NPP resilience.” In this study, we examined the linkage between disturbance severity and ecosystem biological and physical structural change, and implications for NPP within an experimentally disturbed forest in northern Michigan, USA. We computed spatially resolved and spatially agnostic metrics of forest biological and physical structure before and 10 years after disturbance across a continuum of severity. We found that while biological structure did not change in response to disturbance, three of four physical structural measures increased or were unimodally related to disturbance severity. Physical structural shifts mediated by disturbance were not found to directly influence processes coupled with NPP. However, decadal changes in the spatial aggregation index of Clark and Evans, though not a function of disturbance severity, were found to predict canopy light uptake, leaf physiological variability, and relative NPP within plots. We conclude that ecosystem structural shifts across disturbance severity continua are variable and differ in their relationship to NPP resilience.

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