Legacies of past land use have a stronger effect on forest carbon exchange than future climate change in a temperate forest landscape

Dominik Thom, Werner Rammer, Rita Garstenauer, Rupert Seidl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Forest ecosystems play an important role in the global climate system and are thus intensively discussed in the context of climate change mitigation. Over the past decades temperate forests were a carbon (C) sink to the atmosphere. However, it remains unclear to which degree this C uptake is driven by a recovery from past land use and natural disturbances or ongoing climate change, inducing high uncertainty regarding the future temperate forest C sink. Here our objectives were (i) to investigate legacies within the natural disturbance regime by empirically analyzing two disturbance episodes affecting the same landscape 90 years apart, and (ii) to unravel the effects of past land use and natural disturbances as well as the future climate on 21st century forest C uptake by means of simulation modeling. We collected historical data from archives to reconstruct the vegetation and disturbance history of a forest landscape in the Austrian Alps from 1905 to 2013. The effects of legacies and climate were disentangled by individually controlling for past land use, natural disturbances, and future scenarios of climate change in a factorial simulation study. We found only moderate spatial overlap between two episodes of wind and bark beetle disturbance affecting the landscape in the early 20th and 21st century, respectively. Our simulations revealed a high uncertainty about the relationship between the two disturbance episodes, whereas past land use clearly increased the impact of the second disturbance episode on the landscape. The future forest C sink was strongly driven by the cessation of historic land use, while climate change reduced forest C uptake. Compared to land-use change the two past episodes of natural disturbance had only marginal effects on the future carbon cycle. We conclude that neglecting legacies can substantially bias assessments of future forest dynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5699-5713
Number of pages15
Issue number18
StatePublished - 25 Sep 2018
Externally publishedYes


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