Mortality in Forested Ecosystems: Suggested Conceptual Advances

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Harmon, Mark E.; Bell, David M. 2020. Mortality in Forested Ecosystems: Suggested Conceptual Advances. Forests . 11(5): 572. doi:


Mortality of trees is an important ecological process altering forest structure and function as well as influencing forest management decisions. Recent observations suggest that the overall rate of tree mortality is increasing at local to global scales. While more data on mortality is needed to document these changes, key concepts are also needed to guide the collection, interpretation, and use of this information. Mortality can be considered as a general process that includes all forms of tree-related death ranging from parts of trees to large-scale disturbances. Viewing mortality as a continuum allows one to examine how the lifespan of trees and their parts (e.g., branches), as well as multiple disturbances, influence ecosystem structure and function. Statistically, mortality does not follow the law of large numbers because, regardless of the scale analyzed, consequential, infrequent episodes can occur. This causes mortality to occur in irregular pulses. While the causes of mortality are indeed complex, this stems from the fact many processes, each with its own set of controls, can lead to mortality. By analyzing and predicting mortality using a chain of events influenced by specific mechanisms, a clearer understanding of this process should develop, leading to a more science-based and less reactive forest management.
Keywords: forest disturbance; global change; mortality causes; mortality modeling; tree mortality