Indexed on: 04 Oct '16Published on: 30 Aug '16Published in: Forest Ecology and Management
Mountain forests are among the most important ecosystems in Europe as they support numerous ecological, hydrological, climatic, social, and economic functions. They are unique relatively natural ecosystems consisting of long-lived species in an otherwise densely populated human landscape. Despite this, centuries of intensive forest management in many of these forests have eclipsed evidence of natural processes, especially the role of disturbances in long-term forest dynamics. Recent trends of land abandonment and establishment of protected forests have coincided with a growing interest in managing forests in more natural states. At the same time, the importance of past disturbances highlighted in an emerging body of literature, and recent increasing disturbances due to climate change are challenging long-held views of dynamics in these ecosystems. Here, we synthesize aspects of this Special Issue on the ecology of mountain forest ecosystems in Europe in the context of broader discussions in the field, to present a new perspective on these ecosystems and their natural disturbance regimes. Most mountain forests in Europe, for which long-term data are available, show a strong and long-term effect of not only human land use but also of natural disturbances that vary by orders of magnitude in size and frequency. Although these disturbances may kill many trees, the forests themselves have not been threatened. The relative importance of natural disturbances, land use, and climate change for ecosystem dynamics varies across space and time. Across the continent, changing climate and land use are altering forest cover, forest structure, tree demography, and natural disturbances, including fires, insect outbreaks, avalanches, and wind disturbances. Projected continued increases in forest area and biomass along with continued warming are likely to further promote forest disturbances. Episodic disturbances may foster ecosystem adaptation to the effects of ongoing and future climatic change. Increasing disturbances, along with trends of less intense land use, will promote further increases in coarse woody debris, with cascading positive effects on biodiversity, edaphic conditions, biogeochemical cycles, and increased heterogeneity across a range of spatial scales. Together, this may translate to disturbance-mediated resilience of forest landscapes and increased biodiversity, as long as climate and disturbance regimes remain within the tolerance of relevant species. Understanding ecological variability, even imperfectly, is integral to anticipating vulnerabilities and promoting ecological resilience, especially under growing uncertainty. Allowing some forests to be shaped by natural processes may be congruent with multiple goals of forest management, even in densely settled and developed countries.