Age structure and disturbance legacy of North American forests
Abstract. Most forests of the world are recovering from a past disturbance. It is well known that forest disturbances profoundly affect carbon stocks and fluxes in forest ecosystems, yet it has been a great challenge to assess disturbance impacts in estimates of forest carbon budgets. Net sequestration or loss of CO2 by forests after disturbance follows a predictable pattern with forest recovery. Forest age, which is related to time since disturbance, is a useful surrogate variable for analyses of the impact of disturbance on forest carbon. In this study, we compiled the first continental forest age map of North America by combining forest inventory data, historical fire data, optical satellite data and the dataset from NASA's Landsat Ecosystem Disturbance Adaptive Processing System (LEDAPS) project. A companion map of the standard deviations for age estimates was developed for quantifying uncertainty. We discuss the significance of the disturbance legacy from the past, as represented by current forest age structure in different regions of the US and Canada, by analyzing the causes of disturbances from land management and nature over centuries and at various scales. We also show how such information can be used with inventory data for analyzing carbon management opportunities. By combining geographic information about forest age with estimated C dynamics by forest type, it is possible to conduct a simple but powerful analysis of the net CO2 uptake by forests, and the potential for increasing (or decreasing) this rate as a result of direct human intervention in the disturbance/age status. Finally, we describe how the forest age data can be used in large-scale carbon modeling, both for land-based biogeochemistry models and atmosphere-based inversion models, in order to improve the spatial accuracy of carbon cycle simulations.