Lichen-Based Indices to Quantify Responses to Climate and Air Pollution Across Northeastern U.S.A

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2015


Lichens are known to be indicators for air quality; they also respond to climate. We developed indices for lichen response to climate and air quality in forests across the northeastern United States of America (U.S.A.), using 218–250 plot surveys with 145–161 macrolichen taxa from the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Lichen indicator species for response to climate and air quality were selected using Indicator Species Analysis, correlations with environmental variables, and published literature. Ordinations were used to evaluate the strength and relationships of the final indices. The Pollution Index was calculated for a plot from abundances of 12 tolerant and 45 sensitive indicator species standardized by abundance of all lichen species. The Index was correlated with modeled deposition of acidifying sulfur and oxidized nitrogen and with lichen community ordination pollution axes. Analyses suggested separate response of lichens to fertilizing N (weak statistical support). The Climate Index, from abundances of 19 warmer and 47 cooler climate indicator species, was correlated with modeled minimum January and annual maximum temperatures, and with ordination climate axes. The two indices are statistically independent. Repeat sample variability for each index was 7–14.5% (lower with higher quality data), supporting detection of consistent trends of 16–20% change over time or variation across space. Variability of the Climate Index was more affected by data quality than that of the Pollution Index. The continuous gradient of Pollution Index values suggests the cleanest areas may have air pollution above a critical load to fully protect lichen communities. These Indices can be applied to track lichen responses using other data from our study regions; suitability should be tested before use outside of the study area.