Terrestrial disturbances are accelerating globally, but their full impact is not quantified because we lack an adequate monitoring system. Remote sensing offers a means to quantify the frequency and extent of disturbances globally. Here, we review the current application of remote sensing to this problem and offer a framework for more systematic analysis in the future. We recommend that any proposed monitoring system should not only detect disturbances, but also be able to: identify the proximate cause(s); integrate a range of spatial scales; and, ideally, incorporate process models to explain the observed patterns and predicted trends in the future. Significant remaining challenges are tied to the ecology of disturbances. To meet these challenges, more effort is required to incorporate ecological principles and understanding into the assessments of disturbance worldwide.