Ice Lens: Our friend, the lungwort, deeply intertwines with Northwest science

I hold a branch full of Lobaria that fell from a tree in a recent windstorm. On one of the many trails near my parents' house in the foothills of the Cascades. Photo by Amy Gobroski.

I travelled to Washington and British Columbia for the Christmas season, and feel a bit out of place. The trees around me this week are either far too tall to be considered “willows” or “alder” or completely alien (fir? hemlock?).

When I went on a walk in the foothills of the Cascades yesterday, I finally found an old friend. Lungwort (Lobaria sp.). (Edit: Lungwort also refers to a flowering plant in the forget-me-not/bluebell family) Common windstorms knocked clumps of lungwort to the ground. The maple leaf-covered trail was rich with patches of green.

Lungwort branches into the history of pollution in the Northwest. You see, many lichens are sensitive to air pollution, and federal agencies often use lichens like lungwort as indicators of environmental stress. For example, scientists here took inventory of what types of lichen were common to an area. If only sulfur-dioxide-tolerant species were around, then there was likely sulfur dioxide pollution – commonly from coal-fired electric plants and marine vessels. Washington state regulations have since lowered background levels of sulfur dioxide, and lichens like lungwort flourish.

For more information about lungwort and the importance other pollution indicators in the Northwest, here’s an overview from the USDA and U.S. Forest Service (links to a .pdf).

Check back Christmas Eve for an update about the future of this little blog, and what inspired it in the first place. Merry Christmas!

Clumps of lungwort littered the ground near Darrington, Wash. Photo by Kelsey Gobroski.

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