Question: Hurricanes and cyclones cause a wide range of damage to coastal forests worldwide. Most of these storms are not catastrophic in ecological terms, but forest responses to storms of moderate intensities are poorly understood. In regions with a high frequency of moderate hurricanes, how does variation in disturbance intensity affect the magnitude of ecological responses?
Location: Naushon Island, Massachusetts, USA.
Methods: We use historical records and dendroecological methods to characterize establishment and growth of Fagus grandifolia, Quercus alba, and Quercus velutina in response to seven non-catastrophic hurricanes of varying intensity, and a major logging event, relative to baseline conditions, over the past 150 years. Our aim was to document variation in the magnitude of responses to known disturbance events of varying intensity, and to determine whether tree growth after moderate hurricanes differs from growth during periods of no disturbance.
Results: Forest harvesting in 1824-1827 had a strong impact on forest composition and growth. Since then, the study region has been characterized by little harvesting but frequent hurricanes. However, only one of the seven storms examined caused substantial increases in growth and new establishment for the dominant species; most moderate disturbances had minimal impact on growth and regeneration dynamics. We also document highly variable responses among species to individual storms, including substantial growth decreases that may not be detected by standard analytical approaches.
Conclusions: Our results caution against the use of simple metrics such as wind speed to predict forest response to specific hurricanes, and highlight the importance of individual disturbance events in controlling long-term forest dynamics, even in regions characterized by high disturbance frequency. In addition, we show that standard approaches to reconstructing disturbance history based on increases in radial growth and pulses of tree establishment are likely to underestimate the frequency of moderate disturbances.