Ecosystem scientists have yet to develop a proven methodology to monitor and understand major disturbance events and their historical regimes at a global scale. This study was conducted to evaluate patterns in an 18-year record of global satellite observations of vegetation phenology from the Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) as a means to characterize major ecosystem disturbance events and regimes. The fraction absorbed of photosynthetically active radiation (FPAR) by vegetation canopies worldwide has been computed at a monthly time interval from 1982 to 1999 and gridded at a spatial resolution of 0.5° latitude/longitude. Potential disturbance events of large extent (> 0.5 Mha) were identified in the FPAR time series by locating anomalously low values (FPAR-LO) that lasted longer than 12 consecutive months at any 0.5° pixel. We find that nearly 400 Mha of the global land surface could be identified with at least one FPAR-LO event over the 18-year time series. The majority of these potential disturbance events occurred in tropical savanna and shrublands or in boreal forest ecosystem classes. Verification of potential disturbance events from our FPAR-LO analysis was carried out using documented records of the timing of large-scale wildfires at locations throughout the world. Disturbance regimes were further characterized by association analysis with historical climate anomalies. Assuming accuracy of the FPAR satellite record to characterize major ecosystem disturbance events, we estimate that nearly 9 Pg of carbon could have been lost from the terrestrial biosphere to the atmosphere as a result of large-scale ecosystem disturbance over this 18-year time series.