Detecting and understanding disturbance is a challenge in ecology that has grown more critical with global environmental change and the emergence of research on social–ecological systems. We identify three areas of research need: developing a flexible framework that incorporates feedback loops between social and ecological systems, anticipating whether a disturbance will change vulnerability to other environmental drivers, and incorporating changes in system sensitivity to disturbance in the face of global changes in environmental drivers. In the present article, we review how discoveries from the US Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network have influenced theoretical paradigms in disturbance ecology, and we refine a framework for describing social–ecological disturbance that addresses these three challenges. By operationalizing this framework for seven LTER sites spanning distinct biomes, we show how disturbance can maintain or alter ecosystem state, drive spatial patterns at landscape scales, influence social–ecological interactions, and cause divergent outcomes depending on other environmental changes.

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