Ecosystem structure and function are strongly affected by disturbance events, many of which in North America are associated with seasonal temperature extremes, wildfires, and tropical storms. This study was conducted to evaluate patterns in a 19-year record of global satellite observations of vegetation phenology from the advanced very high resolution radiometer (AVHRR) as a means to characterize major ecosystem disturbance events and regimes. The fraction absorbed of photosynthetically active radiation (FPAR) by vegetation canopies worldwide has been computed at a monthly time interval from 1982 to 2000 and gridded at a spatial resolution of 8-km globally. Potential disturbance events were identified in the FPAR time series by locating anomalously low values (FPAR-LO) that lasted longer than 12 consecutive months at any 8-km pixel. We can find verifiable evidence of numerous disturbance types across North America, including major regional patterns of cold and heat waves, forest fires, tropical storms, and large-scale forest logging. Summed over 19 years, areas potentially influenced by major ecosystem disturbances (one FPAR-LO event over the period 1982-2000) total to more than 766,000 km2. The periods of highest detection frequency were 1987-1989, 1995-1997, and 1999. Sub-continental regions of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Central Canada had the highest proportion (>90%) of FPAR-LO pixels detected in forests, tundra shrublands, and wetland areas. The Great Lakes region showed the highest proportion (39%) of FPAR-LO pixels detected in cropland areas, whereas the western United States showed the highest proportion (16%) of FPAR-LO pixels detected in grassland areas. Based on this analysis, an historical picture is emerging of periodic droughts and heat waves, possibly coupled with herbivorous insect outbreaks, as among the most important causes of ecosystem disturbance in North America. © 2005 Springer Science+Business Media Inc. Abstract reproduced by permission.