Recovery time and state change of terrestrial carbon cycle after disturbance

Zheng Fu, Dejun Li, Oleksandra Hararuk, Christopher Schwalm, Yiqi Luo, Liming Yan, Shuli Niu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Ecosystems usually recover from disturbance until a stable state, during which carbon (C) is accumulated to compensate for the C loss associated with disturbance events. However, it is not well understood how likely it is for an ecosystem to recover to an alternative state and how long it takes to recover toward a stable state. Here, we synthesized the results from 77 peer-reviewed case studies that examined ecosystem recovery following disturbances to quantify state change (relative changes between pre-disturbance and fully recovered states) and recovery times for various C cycle variables and disturbance types. We found that most ecosystem C pools and fluxes fully recovered to a stable state that was not significantly different from the pre-disturbance state, except for leaf area index and net primary productivity, which were 10% and 35% higher than the pre-disturbance value, respectively, in forest ecosystem. Recovery times varied largely among variables and disturbance types in the forest, with the longest recovery time required for total biomass (104 ± 33 years) and the shortest time required for C fluxes (23 ± 5 years). The longest and shortest recovery times for different disturbance types are deforestation (101 ± 28 years) and drought (10 ± 1 years), respectively. The recovery time was related to disturbance severity with severer disturbances requiring longer recovery times. However, in the long term, recovery had a strong tendency to drive ecosystem C accumulation towards an equilibrium state. Although we assumed disturbances are static, the recovery-related estimates and relationships revealed in this study are crucial for improving the estimates of disturbance impacts and long-term C balance in terrestrial ecosystems within a disturbance-recovery cycle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104004
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 3 2017


  • carbon cycle
  • equilibrium state
  • global synthesis
  • recovery time
  • state change

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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