Environmental disturbance underpins the dynamics and diversity of many of the ecosystems of the world, yet its influence on the patterns and distribution of genetic diversity is poorly appreciated. We argue here that disturbance history may be the major driver that shapes patterns of genetic diversity in many natural populations. We outline how disturbance influences genetic diversity through changes in both selective processes and demographically driven, selectively neutral processes. Our review highlights the opportunities and challenges presented by genetic approaches, such as landscape genomics, for better understanding and predicting the demographic and evolutionary responses of natural populations to disturbance. Developing this understanding is now critical because disturbance regimes are changing rapidly in a human-modified world.