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Weather & Climate

Air Quality and Lichens


Lichens are mutualistic associations of a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium and occur as crusty patches or bushy growths on trees, rocks and bare ground. The names given to lichens strictly refer to the fungal partner; the algae have separate names. Lichens are very sensitive to sulphur dioxide pollution in the air. Since industrialisation, many lichen species have become extinct in large areas of lowland Britain, one example being the beard moss Usnea articulata. This is mainly due to sulphur dioxide pollution, but the loss of habitat, particularly ancient woodland, has also led to reductions in some species. Lichens are sensitive to sulphur dioxide because their efficient absorption systems result in rapid accumulation of sulphur when exposed to high levels of sulphur dioxide pollution. The algal partner seems to be most affected by the sulphur dioxide; chlorophyll is destroyed and photosynthesis is inhibited. Lichens also absorb sulphur dioxide dissolved in water.

Use as Bio-indicators

Lichens are widely used as environmental indicators or bio-indicators. If air is very badly polluted with sulphur dioxide there may be no lichens present, just green algae may be found. If the air is clean, shrubby, hairy and leafy lichens become abundant. A few lichen species can tolerate quite high levels of pollution and are commonly found on pavements, walls and tree bark in urban areas. The most sensitive lichens are shrubby and leafy while the most tolerant lichens are all crusty in appearance. Since industrialisation many of the shrubby and leafy lichens such as Ramalina, Usnea and Lobaria species have very limited ranges, often being confined to the parts of Britain with the purest air such as northern and western Scotland and Devon and Cornwall.

Impacts of Acid Rain

Acid rain became a recognised international problem during the 1980s resulting from the dispersion of air pollutants via tall chimney stacks. Air pollution and acid deposition has led to problems for lichens on bark, particularly because the tree bark has often become more acidic. In some areas, although gaseous sulphur dioxide levels have fallen, the bark of older trees is too acidic for recolonisation, and new growth develops on twigs and younger trees. Some species of lichens have become more widely distributed than they were a century ago as they are more tolerant of acid conditions, such as some species of Bryoria, Parmeliopsis, Pseudevernia and Rinodina.

Zonation of Lichens

A lichen zone pattern may be observed in large towns and cities or around industrial complexes which corresponds to the mean levels of sulphur dioxide experienced. Table 1 shows the lichen zone scale of Hawksworth & Rose (1970). Particular species of lichen present on tree bark can indicate the typical sulphur dioxide levels experienced in that area. For example if there are no lichens present, the air quality is very poor (zone 1), whilst generally only crusty lichens such as Lecanora conizaeoides or Lepraria incana can tolerate poor air quality (zone 3). In moderate to good air, leafy lichens such as Parmelia caperata or Evernia prunastri can survive (zone 6) and in areas where the air is very clean, rare species such as 'the string of sausages' Usnea articulata or the golden wiry lichen Teloschistes flavicans may grow (zone 10).

It is important to note that the zone chart in Table 1 applies to areas where sulphur dioxide levels are increasing. If sulphur dioxide conditions are falling, lichens rarely colonise in exactly the same sequence; lichens are slow growing and may take a year or two to recolonise bark or other substrates following a reduction in air pollution levels, and tiny recolonising specimens can be difficult to spot and identify.

During the early and mid-twentieth century, air pollution levels were much greater than they are today in towns and cities of the UK. Sulphur dioxide levels were highest in the inner city areas becoming less polluted out towards the edges of the urban areas. At such times, the lichen zone scale would often highlight zone 1 as the inner city area, moving through the zones to the cleaner air at the edge of the city. From the 1970s onwards, sulphur dioxide levels have been falling markedly in the central and outer areas of cities, such that there may be no differentiation between levels in central and outer areas of many cities. The fall in sulphur dioxide levels between the 1970s and the 1990s has led to a number of lichens recolonising in areas from which they had previously been eliminated.

Table 1: Sulphur dioxide air quality and lichen zones - the 'Hawksworth & Rose' zone scale for the estimation of mean winter sulphur dioxide levels in England and Wales using lichens growing on acidic and not nutrient enriched tree bark


Moderately acid bark

Mean winter SO2 (µg/m3)


Algae only, e.g. Desmococcus viridis, present but confined to base.



Algae extends up the trunk; Lecanora conizaeoides present but confined to the bases.

about 150


Lecanora conizaeoides extends up the trunk; Lepraria incana becomes frequent on the bases.

about 125


Hypogymnia physodes and/or Parmelia saxatilis or P. sulcata appear on the bases but do not extend up the trunks. Hypocenomyce scalaris, Lecanora expallens and Chaenotheca ferruginea often present.

about 70


Hypogymnia physodes or Parmelia saxatilis extends up the trunk to 2.5m or more; Parmelia glabratula, P. subrudecta, Parmeliopsis ambigua and Lecanora chlarotera appear; Calicium viride, Chrysothrix candelaris and Pertusaria amara may occur; Ramalina farinacea and Evernia prunastrii present largely confined to the bases; Platismatia glauca may be present on horizontal branches.

about 60


Parmelia caperata present at least on the base; rich in species of Pertusaria (e.g. P.albescens, P. hymenea) and Parmelia (e.g. P. revoluta (except in NE), P. tiliacea, P. exasperatula (in N); Graphis elegans appearing; Pseudevernia furfuracea and Bryoria fuscescens present in upland areas.

about 50


Parmelia caperata, P. revoluta (except in NE), P. tiliacea, P. exasperatula (in N) extend up the trunk; Usnea subfloridana, Pertusaria hemisphaerica, Rinodina roboris (in S) and Arthonia impolita (in E) appear.

about 40



Usnea ceratina, Parmelia perlata or P. reticulata (S and W) appear; Rinodina roboris extends up the trunk (in S); and Usnea rubiginea (in S) usually present.

about 35


Lobaria pulmonaria, L. amplissima, Pachyphiale cornea, Dimerella lutea, or Usnea florida present; if these are absent crustose flora well developed with often more than 25 species on larger well-lit trees.

under 30


Lobaria amplissima, L. scrobiculata, Sticta limbata, Pannaria sp, Usnea articulata, U. filipendula or Teloschistes flavicans present to locally abundant