The study of vegetation community and structural change has been central to ecology for over a century, yet how disturbances reshape the physical structure of forest canopies remains relatively unknown. Moderate severity disturbance including fire, ice storms, insect and pathogen outbreaks, affects different canopy strata and plant species, which may give rise to variable structural outcomes and ecological consequences. Terrestrial lidar (light detection and ranging) offers an unprecedented view of the interior arrangement and distribution of canopy elements, permitting the derivation of multidimensional measures of canopy structure that describe several canopy structural traits with known linkages to ecosystem functioning. We used lidar-derived canopy structural measured within a machine learning framework to detect and differentiate among various disturbance agents, including moderate severity fire, ice storm damage, age-related senescence, hemlock woolly adelgid, beech bark disease, and chronic acidification. We found that disturbance agents such as fire and ice storms primarily affected the amount and position of vegetation within canopies, while acidification, pathogen and insect infestation, and senescence altered canopy arrangement and complexity. Only two of the six disturbance agents significantly reduced leaf area, indicating that this commonly quantified canopy feature is insufficient to characterize many moderate severity disturbances. Rather, measures of canopy structure, including those that describe multidimensional change, are needed to characterize disturbance at moderate severities because structural changes from these events are spatially and quantitatively variable. Our findings suggest that standard disturbance detection methods, such as optical based remote sensing platforms, may currently be limited in their ability to detect, differentiate, and characterize disturbance. Further, we conclude that a more broadly inclusive definition of ecological disturbance that incorporates multiple aspects of canopy structure change will improve the modeling, detection, and prediction of functional implications of moderate severity disturbance.
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