Natural disturbances and the hydrology of humid tropical forests

Scatena FN, Planos-Gutiérrez EO, Schellekens J. 2004. Natural disturbances
and the hydrology of humid tropical forests. In Forests,
Water, and People in the Humid Tropics, Bonell M, Bruijnzeel LA
(eds). Cambridge University Press: Cambridge; 5–28.

Humid tropical forests are highly dynamic ecosystems that are affected by a wide array of environmental processes and disturbances (Figure 19.1). Quantifying the magnitude, frequency, and impacts of natural disturbances is essential for designing hydraulic structures, developing water management strategies, and distinguishing between natural variation and man-made influences. A disturbance can be defined as any discrete event that transfers mass and energy from one part of a system to another in a manner that disrupts ecosystem, community, or population structure and changes resource availability or the physical environment (see White and Pickett 1985 for a detailed discussion). Natural disturbances can be driven by both external factors – hurricanes, meteor impacts, etc. – and the biological properties of the system such as senescence, pathogens, etc. The natural disturbances specified by the United Nations in the International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction were earthquakes, windstorms, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, grasshopper and locust infestations, drought, and desertification (Board on Natural Disasters, 1999). Additional natural disturbances known to affect the hydrology of humid tropical forests are tree falls, pathogens, exotic invasions and meteor impacts. Quantifying the effects of disturbances on landform morphology and ecosystem development have been major themes in geomorphology and ecology (Wolman and Miller, 1960, Connell, 1978). This approach has led to the paradigm that landscapes are structured by the processes acting upon them (O’Neill et al., 1986, Urban et al., 1987, Scatena, 1995). It is now generally recognised that the ability of a disturbance to affect the morphology of a landscape or the structure of an ecosystem depends on: (1) the type of disturbance (e.g., flood, fire, landslide, biologic, anthropogenic etc.); (2) the force exerted (e.g. wind velocity and duration, rainfall magnitude and intensity, earthquake magnitude etc.); (3) the ecosystem component that is impacted directly (e.g. soil, biomass, leaf area etc.); (4) the area affected and the spatial distribution of impacts; (5) the return period or frequency of the event; (6) the condition of the system at the time of the disturbance (e.g. structure, regeneration phase, time since last disturbance); and (7) the magnitude of the constructive or restorative processes that occur between disturbances.