Sensitive species turn an invisible problem into an obvious one
Plants already play an important role in fighting air pollution and making sure we all have enough air to breathe, but now they can also warn us about the quality of air in our surrounding area. Created by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), an ozone garden contains plants such as milkweed, snap bean, potato and cutleaf coneflowers, all of which will develop evenly spaced spots on their leaves when there is ozone in the air. The garden seems like the perfect way to turn an invisible problem into one that can’t be ignored.
Here’s how the pollution-sensitive plants work. Ozone in the air, which is typically caused when nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide emissions from combustion are exposed to sunlight. This turns portions of the leaves black, and although the plants don’t typically die, the damaged leaves do fall off before being replaced by new ones.
Danica Lombardozzi, a postdoctoral researcher at NCAR, and Kateryna Lapina, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder, who both collaborated on the garden project, chose the plants for their sensitivity. The only downside is that the changes don’t happen right away, it all depends on how long ozone is in the air and how long the plants are exposed.
The problem with ozone is that it’s invisible, so people don’t really have any reason to care about how much of it there is in the air. That being said, it can have some serious effects on plants, which includes reduced yields of important agricultural crops like soybeans, wheat and cotton as well as slower growth of important tree species in different parts of the country.
“Understanding the magnitude of this decrease is important for future food security in regions with high ozone concentrations,” says Lombardozzi. While the plants aren’t available to the public just yet, you can still get air quality updates from the website Ozone Aware.
Images by NCAR and UCARSciEd