In this new study published in Nature, a dataset consisting of nearly 30,000 individual observations of forest disturbance has been used to demonstrate a long-term increase in disturbance (damage caused by storms, bark beetles or wildfires).
In southern Europe this is dominated by wildfires, which are predicted to become significantly worse over the next few decades. In central and northern Europe storm damage dominates.
Forest disturbance at this continental scale is critically important to understand as it has a major impact on the carbon balance of Europe's forests. Forests that are blown over or burnt release large amount of carbon back into the atmosphere, which may take many decades to reabsorbed by the recovering forests.
For example, the famous 1987 UK storm (visible as the major peak in storm disturbance in the "Atlantic" region in graph) felled around 15 million trees. My back of the envelope calculation suggests that this would have released around 20 million tonnes of carbon - and this would have taken UK forests around 5 years to re-absorb. So this single event (and if you look at the axes on the graph you notice that in comparison to the amount of disturbance in other parts of Europe this event was quite small), something like 5 years of UK forest carbon "fixing" was wiped out...
Generally, it is important to note that intensifying forest disturbance regimes will not only affect the forest C sink, but will also have implications for a wide variety of other ecosystem services. However, not only provisioning services of forest ecosystems but also cultural, regulating and supporting services (for example, recreational value, protection against soil erosion, air quality and primary productivity) might be adversely affected by the continued increase in natural disturbances projected here.