Disturbance is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the interruption of a settled and peaceful condition’.
Nature is everything but a ‘peaceful condition’. However, without disturbance it would be a settled one. In ecology, we use the term ‘climax vegetation’ for such a settled state: an ecosystem with climax vegetation has had enough time to develop to its final stage and find a dynamic equilibrium. Without disturbance, the system would stay the same (not exactly, as individuals will die and be replaced, but dynamically).
Disturbance however, from natural or human origin, disrupts this equilibrium. It will shuffle the ecosystem in such a way that the previous hierarchy disappears. It is the ecological version of a coup, a revolution. It creates instability, removes those in power and provides opportunities for a new order, all of a sudden.
This sudden reshuffling of the cards in the struggle for survival is exactly what makes disturbance one of the most interesting ecological processes to study. As modern humans amply showed they are the kings of major disturbing events, those unstable conditions are rapidly taking over the world.
In alpine and arctic tundra vegetation, large-scale antropogenic disturbances are relatively new. The slow-growing tundra plants are more than any other species ill-prepared to deal with its consequences (see also the results of this paper).
The local effects of disturbance on tundra are crystal-clear. There do however remain some important questions: how is the adjacent undisturbed tundra going to react on the disturbance? Can we expect a snowball effect, where the initial climax vegetation starts deteriorating and gets replaced by a new disturbance-adapted species set? Also: is there an alternative possible vegetation on the highest elevations, or is it tundra or nothing?
Disturbance research is a major part of my PhD. This chapter will hence be added to the ‘Science‘-menu on the top. I also hope to add some of my own theoretical insights to scientific literature within a reasonable timespan.