We experimentally and numerically investigate the intracavity ionization of a dilute gas target by an ultrashort pulse inside a femtosecond enhancement cavity. Numerical simulations detail how the dynamic ionization of the gas target limits the achievable peak intensity of the evolving intracavity pulse beyond that of linear cavity losses, setting a constraint on the strength of the nonlinear interaction that can be sustained in such optical cavities. Experimental measurements combined with numerical simulations predict ionization levels in a femtosecond enhancement cavity for the first time. We demonstrate how the resonant response of the femtosecond enhancement cavity can itself be used as a sensitive probe of optical nonlinearities at high intensities.
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