A fundamental property of all forest landscapes is the size frequency distribution of canopy gap disturbances. But characterizing forest structure and changes at large spatial scales has been challenging and most of our understanding is from permanent inventory plots. Here we report the first application of light detection and ranging remote sensing to measurements of canopy disturbance and regeneration in an old-growth tropical rain forest landscape. Pervasive local height changes figure prominently in the dynamics of this forest. Although most canopy gaps recruited to higher positions during 8.5 years, size frequency distributions were similar at two points in time and well-predicted by power-laws. At larger spatial scales (hundreds of ha), height increases and decreases occurred with similar frequency and changes to canopy height that were analysed using a height transition matrix suggest that the distribution of canopy height at the beginning of the study was close to the projected steady-state equilibrium under the recent disturbance regime. Taken together, these findings show how widespread local height changes can produce short-term stability in a tropical rain forest landscape.