Natural disturbances like wildfire, windthrow and insect outbreaks are critical drivers of composition, structure and functioning of forest ecosystems. They are strongly climate-sensitive, and are thus likely to be distinctly affected by climatic changes. Observations across Europe show that in recent decades, forest disturbance regimes have intensified markedly, resulting in a strong increase in damage from wind, bark beetles and wildfires. Climate change is frequently hypothesized as the main driving force behind this intensification, but changes in forest structure and composition associated with management activities such as promoting conifers and increasing standing timber volume (i.e. ‘forest change’) also strongly influence susceptibility to disturbances. Here, we show that from 1958 to 2001, forest change contributed in the same order of magnitude as climate change to the increase in disturbance damage in Europe's forests. Climate change was the main driver of the increase in area burnt, while changes in forest extent, structure and composition particularly affected the variation in wind and bark beetle damage. For all three disturbance agents, damage was most severe when conducive weather conditions and increased forest susceptibility coincided. We conclude that a continuing trend towards more disturbance-prone conditions is likely for large parts of Europe's forests, and can have strong detrimental effects on forest carbon storage and other ecosystem services. Understanding the interacting drivers of natural disturbance regimes is thus a prerequisite for climate change mitigation and adaptation in forest ecosystem management.
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