US Long-Term Ecological Research Network
A revised concept of landscape equilibrium: disturbance and stability on scaled landscapes
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Temporal and spatial scales of disturbance and recovery are often confounded in discussions of landscape equilibrium. We developed a broad framework for the description of landscapes that separates the spatial and temporal scales of disturbance and recovery and predicts the resultant dynamics of a landscape. Two key parameters representing time and space are used to describe potential disturbance dynamics. The temporal parameter, T, is the ratio of the disturbance interval (i.e., time between successive disturbance events) to the time required for a disturbed site to recover to a mature stage. The spatial parameter, S, is the ratio of the size of the disturbance to the size of the landscape. The use of ratios in both parameters permits the comparison of landscapes across a range of spatial and temporal scales. A simple simulation model was developed to explore the implications of various combinations of S and T. For any single simulation, disturbances of a fixed size are imposed at random locations on a gridded landscape at specified intervals. Disturbed sites recover deterministically through succession. Where disturbance interval is long relative to recovery time and a small proportion of the landscape is affected, the system is stable and exhibits low variance over time (e.g., northeastern hardwood forests). These are traditional “equilibrium systems. Where disturbance interval is comparable to recovery interval and a large proportion of the landscape is affected, the system is stable but exhibits large variance (e.g., subalpine forests in Yellowstone Park). Where disturbance interval becomes much shorter than recovery time and a large proportion of the landscape is affected, the system may become unstable and shift into a different trajectory (e.g., arid ecosystems with altered fire regimes). This framework permits the prediction of disturbance conditions that lead to qualitatively different landscape dynamics and demonstrates the scale-dependent nature of concepts of landscape equilibrium.