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Air pollution often poses the biggest danger to internationally rare habitats.
68% of our most sensitive habitats are impacted by excess nitrogen, like the temperate rainforests found along the west coast of Britain.
Full of wonder and mossy goodness these beauties really capture the imagination and lift the spirits of anyone who visits. This unique habitat thrives in areas where there is a high annual rainfall with relatively constant temperatures.
However, temperate rainforests are more than just woodlands; they are a mosaic of trees, open glades, crags, ravines, rocks and gorges. With surfaces absolutely chock full of liches, mosses, liverworts and an array of fungi – they support an important array of wildlife, absorb carbon and slow the flow of floodwaters.
Nitrogen gases in air pollution have the potential to destroy these beautiful places. This pollution can take the form of ammonia emissions from farm manures and fertilisers, or nitrogen oxide emissions from fossil fuels.
Even rainforest areas far from the source of pollution, such as the northwest coast of Scotland, are affected by air pollution as it can travel long distances in the atmosphere.
Trees within the rainforest will temporarily show increased growth from extra nitrogen. However, in the long term any growth will soon stagnate as the earth becomes saturated with excess nitrogen – more than 94% of woodlands are affected by air pollution UK wide.
Higher nitrogen levels mean trees will often suffer from discoloration and increased vulnerability to drought, frost, and disease like acute oak decline.
Woodland fungi are no exception to impacts of air pollution, as many are closely associated with tree roots and health.
Their loss will result in a further decline of tree species, leading to increasing carbon emissions and further contributing to the ongoing climate crisis.
A change in flora is sure to follow an increase in air pollution as tougher nitrogen-tolerant plants, such as nettles and brambles, will outcompete the more sensitive and specialist species within the rainforest. This has a cascading effect on other wildlife which rely on certain wild plants for food, shelter, and reproduction.
Losing species which make up a significant part of the rainforest ground cover, such as mosses and liverworts like Greater Whipwort, reduces the ecosystem’s ability to retain water. This makes the whole area more vulnerable to droughts and floods.
As an essential part of temperate rainforests, lichens require low levels of air pollution to thrive. Lichens provide food, shelter and microhabitats for invertebrates, in addition to contributing to carbon cycling and water retention. Some rare lichen species are only found in rainforest areas and are being pushed to the brink of extinction.
Without lichens, our temperate rainforests would struggle even more to survive. Many are incredibly sensitive to changes in air quality, such as tree lungwort (Lobaria spp) and will quickly be lost to increased levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere.
Tree Lungwort in particular is an amazing indicator species, as its presence signals that the forest is healthy and functioning as it should. This is because it is a slow growing species that is even more sensitive to air pollution than most other lichens.
Tree Lungwort often can become outcompeted and swamped in nitrogen-tolerant algae, knocking the ecosystem out of balance. When we see populations of lungwort recovering, we know that our air quality is improving and with that, the rainforest.
Hope is not lost! For one, you are reading this and arming yourself with information to pass onto your family and friends. When you take action on air pollution, you’re benefiting wildlife as well as people’s health.
You can also support Plantlife’s work to inspire further action to reduce air pollution and tackle its impacts on our natural environment.
Our Global Advocacy Coordinator, Claire Rumsey, will be at COP28 to speak up for the vital role of wild plants and fungi in the fight against climate change.
Discover how you can identify the mosses where you live, and read about Lizzie's challenge to learn 10 mosses!
Ever wondered why we need to go out and count rare plants? Meg Griffiths reflects on a summer of lichen hunting for the Natur am Byth! Project.
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