Understanding the impacts of natural disturbances on wildlife populations is a central task for ecologists; in general, the severity of impact of a disturbance (e.g., the resulting degree of population decline) is likely to depend primarily on the disturbance intensity (i.e., strength of forcing), type of disturbance, and species vulnerability. However, differences among disturbance events in the physical units of forcing and interspecific differences in the temporal variability of population size under normal (non-disturbance) conditions hinder comprehensive analysis of disturbance severity. Here, we propose new measures of disturbance intensity and severity, both represented by the return periods. We use a meta-analysis to describe the severity-intensity relationship across various disturbance types and species. The severity and the range of its 95% confidential interval increased exponentially with increasing intensity. This nonlinear relationship suggests that physically intense events may have a catastrophic impact, but their severity cannot be extrapolated from the severity-intensity relationship for weak, frequent disturbance events. The framework we propose may help to clarify the influence of event types and species traits on the severity-intensity relationship, as well as to improve our ability to predict the ecological consequences of various disturbance events of unexperienced intensity.