The Fracking Wars and Lichen

Shale "plays" around North America; the highlighted areas of this map grows each year as the U.S. Energy Information Administration updates the information.

As we all know, petroleum production in the United States, and the world, has hit a critical juncture. No, this post is not about peak oil — this post concerns the increase in the production of unconventional oil and gas resources and how lichens may be able to help protect our bioregion from the damaging effects of this industry. Unconventional petroleum resources include oil shales, gas shales, tight gas, coal bed methane, tar sands oil, and some others. Such reserves require intensive extraction processes that are much less profitable than conventional petroleum production, and are much more environmentally damaging. But first things first, let’s ask some basic questions.

First Questions: A) What is conventional petroleum production? Drill a hole in the ground and out comes gas and/or oil. B) What is unconventional petroleum production? Squeeze oil or gas out of materials such as sand or rock by either cooking up huge batches of sand and catching the oil that drips out, or cracking a bunch of rock and capturing the gas that seeps out. Yes, these processes require alot of energy input. That being said, you might ask: C) How is this kind of production even profitable? That my friend, is a good question; there’s *alot* of debate surrounding that topic, but we need not get into that here. What is important to note is that despite the decreased profit margin in this new industry, the U.S. government forecasts global annual increase of 4.9% a year in the unconventional fuels sector due to the increasing price of conventional oil.

Hydrofracking rig in Western Idaho. Idaho's natural gas "boom" was announced in spring 2011, a year prior to the announcement the BLM told me via email and FOIA documents that there was very little possibility of oil/gas production potential in Idaho; things sure can change fast.

Second Question: Why is unconventional petroleum production being discussed on a blog about lichens in the Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington state? For three reasons: 1) unconventional petroleum production is creeping into our region; 2) lichens can help monitor the air pollution, and possibly help protect areas that currently have pristine air quality; 3) myself, the author of this blog, wanted to share an idea with my friends who are fighting against the destructive practices of the natural gas production industry: lichen citizen-science activities may be able to help monitor the impacts and highlight potential problems before health and ecological damage becomes irreversible.

Oil/Gas in Eastern Washington

USGS document concerning undiscovered oil and gas resources in Eastern Washington and Oregon (click image to download document)

In our region of the inland northwest, unconventional oil and gas production is creeping towards us relatively quickly. You probably know of someone who has run off to the “black gold rush” down in western Idaho, or the Rocky Mountain front in Montana, or Alberta, Canada, And you might know that under the thick basalt layer of central-eastern Washington and Oregon lies an incredibly large reserve of fuel, estimated at 2.4 trillion cubic feet oil and gas. The BLM states that there has been “a dramatic interest in oil and gas leases in Oregon and Washington in the past few years.”

Now that we understand that there is a potential of a black gold rush in our region, it’s good to know some proactive ways of protecting our bioregion. Monitoring the biological health of our region is one of those ways. Biomonitoring is a method of monitoring whereby an organism indicates what is happening to the ecosystem — whether the climate is getting drier or wetter, warmer or colder, or whether a certain pollutant is being deposited at levels that may be threatening to life in that area. Biomonitors are basically “canaries in the coal mine” and lichen are among the best of the biomonitors.

Lichen: Canaries in the coal mine

Lichens are regarded by scientists as one of the best biological indicators of airborne pollution because they are poikilohydric – i.e. they get all their nutrients and water from the air — thus they respond quickly to changes in air quality and climate.

Both of these lichen are the species Evernia prunastri, a macrolichen that becomes sick when subjected to eutrophic air pollution. The one on the left is healthy, the one on the right is from the Cheney Wetlands Trail near Turnbull NWR.

The responses of lichen to pollutants are variable. Some will have morphological variations, such as the macrolichen Evernia prunastri which looks severely ill in many areas around Spokane and the Western Plains. Others will show a necrosis which is either black or white, but is just general decay. And others will completely die out before we even can notice morphological changes — these locally extinct lichen will either be replaced by lichen that thrive in that type of pollution, or the area will turn into a “lichen desert.” Ominous, yes, if you see no lichen growing at all that is an indicator that the habitat or ecosystem in that area is most likely on a quick decline (make sure that you use a very strong magnifying glass before jumping to that conclusion, lichens are often very very small).

In order to know whether the lichen composition is changing, monitoring protocols have to be constructed, baseline surveys conducted, and then periodic surveys repeated. One of the great things about lichen monitoring programs is that basic lichen identification can be conducted with minimal tools and quickly taught to regular non-scientific folks — the first nation wide lichen survey was conducted by British schoolchildren in the 1970′s: it was called “Britain’s Mucky Air Map” and showed pristine and polluted air regions throughout the UK.

This is some of the investigative gear of one of the landowners fighting gas fracking out east. The situation has become like a battleground between residents and industry; many folks have abandoned their normal ways of life to protect their water, air, and future of their communities.

If schoolchildren can correctly survey lichen, surely any of us can! And we don’t need to rig up a homemade Giegercounter or get our hands on a remote controlled helicoptor video device for this monitoring project (yes, people are actually doing this out east, the situation is that desperate): at the most basic level all we need is a 10x loupe and a bit of time.

Besides being an inexpensive method for monitoring air quality, lichen monitoring is also great because baseline information on lichen composition has already been gathered in many forested areas of the country. The United States Forest Service has been conducting lichen surveys to monitor forest health — local flora lists can be found here.


To be brief and not get too deep into a bunch of scientific complexities, there are a few basic methods for monitoring air pollution with lichen: distribution, transplantation, and spectroscopy.

1) Distribution patterns we discussed above. Such studies can use methods outlined by the the Index of Atmospheric Purity (IAP), these methods already been developed and tested primarily in European countries, however there have been some issues with the accuracy of this method as outlined in this journal article.

2) Transplantation. A lichen is taken from a pristine area and placed in a suspect area and monitored over a period of time by taking pictures periodically. The extraction and transplant locations should be similar in terms of elevation, microclimate, and habitat. If the study is performed carefully and correctly (the assistance of a local lichenologist is highly recommended), such photographs could be a great mobilizing tool.

3) Spectroscopy. This one requires extensive lab equipment — we’re talking community college or university lab setups. Basically, a percentage of a pollutant in the thallus of the lichen is estimated at dry weight. It is important to note, however, that the processes for testing dry weight of lichen are still being standardized, so it seems best to set up a transect and sample lichen along a pollution gradient, i.e. collect lichen at given points along a line going from an area of clean air, to an area downwind from a compressor station, back to a clean area. Finding an area of “clean air” can surely be difficult in agricultural or urban areas or gas drilling regions, but you just want an area not affected by the compressor station (the unaffected area is your “control”) so that you can quantify the biological effects that compressor station is creating (the affected areas are your “variable”). Another method would be to test the dry weight ratio in a particular species over a period of time — but do be careful to make sure that you take into account that rainwater will leach pollutants from the lichen thallus, so perform collections at similar seasonal times.

Specific pollutant loads that can be tested

Dry weight studies usually focus on one species of lichen that has been found to be the best accumulator of a suspect pollutant, whether that be heavy metals, radionucleotides, flourides/chlorides, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and others. Gases are not very easy to test for in lichen, so sorry folks, sulfur dioxide is going to be a hard one.

NYTimes investigative report on radiactivitive waste water from natural gas drilling polluting the municipal drinking water supplies out east.

Considering the map created by the New York Times showing radionucleotide pollution in the waterways throughout the northeast, it seems important to see how this translates into airborne pollution. Are we dealing with Fukushima type radiation floating around in the humid area of Pittsburgh? Maybe, maybe not. Our lichen friends could help us find out.

Can lichen tell us about the lead and mercury dissipating from the mini-refineries of the compressor stations? Yes indeed, the lichens can easily show these, too.


The participation and capacity of local schools and universities to direct such citizen science monitoring studies seems like a really great way to help ensure the validity, accuracy, and acceptance of such lichen bio-monitoring studies. There’s a great article in Green Teacher for teachers and professors who are interested in setting up these projects as part of their curriculum, you can read that here.

Last but not least

Lichen are fun, beautiful, and engaging. They live year round and don’t loose leaves during the winter, so monitoring parties can happen anytime of the year. And learning about the lichen in our local areas makes going out into the forest or the park way more interesting because lichen patterns create maps that indicate air quality, microclimates, and ecosystem health. With a little training and a keen eye, you’ll soon enough be able to read what they are saying about the areas we live in. And if something is going wrong you’ll be able to take action before the rest of the ecosystem suffers damage – and if something is going right, you’ll be able to watch your hometown recover and thrive again.

– Nastassja Noell


Biological monitoring: lichens as bioindicators of air pollution assessment: a review” by M.E. Conti and G. Cecchetti; Environmental Pollution, 2001. — this is the most useful resource I’ve found as it reviews much of the current research, methods, and shortcomings; it also includes a species list of different lichen and what pollutants they are good at indicating – the link above will give you a free .pdf version of this journal article.

Epiphytic lichens as biomonitors of airborne heavy metal pollution” by K.I.A. Kularatne and C.R. de Freitas. Environmental and Experimental Botany, 2012.

World to rely more on unconventional fuels: EIAWall Street Journal. May 25, 2010.

The Mad Gas Rush” Audubon Magazine. 2004.

Oil exploration along Rocky Mountain Front has residents curious and concerned” The Missoulian. March 1, 2012.

Idaho now open to natural gas fracking” by Nastassja Noell. The River Journal. July 7, 2011.

Putting Utah on a petroleum map” Geotimes. March 2007.