A new research project by Heather Root, assistant professor of botany at Weber State University, may shed light onto Utah’s air quality. Root and her team of students will study lichens—simple and slow-growing plants—to understand forest health in the uinta mountains, which includes monitoring the air quality.
The project is funded by a joint venture from the USDA Forest Service Inventory and Analysis program.
“Lichens have been a part of the monitoring because they absorb most air pollutants roughly in proportion to their deposition,” Root said.
Root says lichens can act like sponges because they absorb what is around them, “Lichens do this better than other plants and animals because they don’t have something that functions as a skin to protect them.”
According to Root, “lichens are a beautiful combination of algae and fungi living together as a composite organism.” Root describes that they need each other in order to be successful.
Root plans to establish 12 sites in the Uintas, starting from the Uinta Basin, in order to calibrate her measurements of the lichen and the air. This will be done with monitors that collect data for the nitrogen, sulfur and metals that land on the lichen.
Root will also be collecting lichens from the same area so a “statistical measurement” can be developed.
Based on this data, Root said lichens can give better answers to the level of pollution instead of monitors.
“Lichens are relatively cheap and easy to collect, whereas monitors are a much bigger investment,” said Root. “I see this project as opening a whole new door to improving spatial resolution of where we have how much air pollution.”
Kris Valles is a sophomore working with Root on the project. Root asked Valles to be part of the project after he gained field experience by working with nature programs during the summer.
Valles is currently curating and identifying samples of lichen found over the summer. He enjoys studying a new area of botany.
Root said that she is expecting to see higher levels of pollution near the Uinta Basin.
“There is more industry and human activity as compared with the high Uintas and north slope of the Uintas,” Root said.
Eric Ewert, a geography professor at WSU, agrees that the increased industry and human activity contributes to the high pollution.
“I pay a lot of attention to this,” Ewert said. “And it worries me.” Ewert has authored several climate focused editorials in The Salt Lake Tribune.
Each winter the air quality issue materializes into the dark, looming and tangible cloud of smog known as the inversion.
“It’s like putting the garbage out but not having it taken away. Eventually it starts to pile up,” Ewert said. “And eventually these bags of garbage become this heaping mound.”