Toward a Generalizable Framework of Disturbance Ecology Through Crowdsourced Science

Contributor Consortium

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34 Scopus citations


Disturbances fundamentally alter ecosystem functions, yet predicting their impacts remains a key scientific challenge. While the study of disturbances is ubiquitous across many ecological disciplines, there is no agreed-upon, cross-disciplinary foundation for discussing or quantifying the complexity of disturbances, and no consistent terminology or methodologies exist. This inconsistency presents an increasingly urgent challenge due to accelerating global change and the threat of interacting disturbances that can destabilize ecosystem responses. By harvesting the expertise of an interdisciplinary cohort of contributors spanning 42 institutions across 15 countries, we identified an essential limitation in disturbance ecology: the word ‘disturbance’ is used interchangeably to refer to both the events that cause, and the consequences of, ecological change, despite fundamental distinctions between the two meanings. In response, we developed a generalizable framework of ecosystem disturbances, providing a well-defined lexicon for understanding disturbances across perspectives and scales. The framework results from ideas that resonate across multiple scientific disciplines and provides a baseline standard to compare disturbances across fields. This framework can be supplemented by discipline-specific variables to provide maximum benefit to both inter- and intra-disciplinary research. To support future syntheses and meta-analyses of disturbance research, we also encourage researchers to be explicit in how they define disturbance drivers and impacts, and we recommend minimum reporting standards that are applicable regardless of scale. Finally, we discuss the primary factors we considered when developing a baseline framework and propose four future directions to advance our interdisciplinary understanding of disturbances and their social-ecological impacts: integrating across ecological scales, understanding disturbance interactions, establishing baselines and trajectories, and developing process-based models and ecological forecasting initiatives. Our experience through this process motivates us to encourage the wider scientific community to continue to explore new approaches for leveraging Open Science principles in generating creative and multidisciplinary ideas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number588940
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
StatePublished - Mar 3 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER), as part of Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Program’s Scientific Focus Area (SFA) at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). PNNL is operated for DOE by Battelle under contract DE-AC06-76RLO 1830.

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Graham, Averill, Bond-Lamberty, Knelman, Krause, Peralta, Shade, Smith, Cheng, Fanin, Freund, Garcia, Gibbons, Van Goethem, Guebila, Kemppinen, Nowicki, Pausas, Reed, Rocca, Sengupta, Sihi, Simonin, Słowiński, Spawn, Sutherland, Tonkin, Wisnoski, Zipper and Contributor Consortium.


  • compounding disturbances
  • ecosystem stability
  • interacting disturbances
  • perturbation
  • resilience
  • resistance
  • spatial
  • temporal


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