The effects of forest cover and disturbance on torrential hazards: Large-scale evidence from the Eastern Alps

Sebald, J. et al. | Environmental Research Letters | 2019 | Peer Reviewed | Original research |


Global human population growth, limited space for settlements and a booming tourism industry have led to a strong increase of human infrastructure in mountain regions. As this infrastructure is highly exposed to natural hazards, a main role of mountain forests is to regulate the environment and reduce hazard probability. However, canopy disturbances are increasing in many parts of the world, potentially threatening the protection function of forests. Yet, large-scale quantitative evidence on the influence of forest cover and disturbance on natural hazards remains scarce to date. Here we quantified the effects of forest cover and disturbance on the probability and frequency of torrential hazards for 10,885 watersheds in the Eastern Alps. Torrential hazard occurrences were derived from a comprehensive database documenting 3,768 individual debris flow and flood events between 1986 and 2018. Forest disturbances were mapped from Landsat satellite time series analysis. We found evidence that forests reduce the probability of natural hazards, with a 25 percentage point increase in forest cover decreasing the probability of torrential hazards by 8.7 ± 1.2 %. Canopy disturbances generally increased the probability of torrential hazard events, with the regular occurrence of large disturbance events being the most detrimental disturbance regime for natural hazards. Disturbances had a bigger effect on debris flows than on flood events, and press disturbances were more detrimental than pulse disturbances. We here present the first large scale quantification of forest cover and disturbance effects on torrential hazards. Our findings highlight that forests constitute important green infrastructure in mountain landscapes, efficiently reducing the probability of natural hazards, but that increasing forest disturbances can weaken the protective function of forests.