Updated: Saturday, 25th October 2014 @ 7:15am

The future’s not bright: Low-level air pollution leads to drop in wildflower populations say Manchester scientists

The future’s not bright: Low-level air pollution leads to drop in wildflower populations say Manchester scientists

By Phil Jones

The UK’s colourful countryside is in danger due to air pollution, according to a Manchester Metropolitan University researcher.

Air pollution caused by car exhausts, fertilizer and industry is killing off many of our plants – with numerous wildflowers being threatened with extinction.

The man-made processes release nitrogen into the atmosphere, which comes back down in rain or snow – acidifying the land.

Even low levels of pollution are now believed to result in declining plant populations, particularly wildflowers such as creeping buttercup, harebell, yarrow and autumn hawkbit.

High nitrogen levels are typically associated with declining populations, and Professor Nancy Dise’s research indicates the impacts of pollution may be more widespread than previously thought.

“We studied many grasslands along the natural gradient of pollution across Europe,” said the professor of biogeochemistry.

“Our results showed that even at the cleanest sites, low levels of pollution affected the abundance of some plant species.”

The biology and conservation ecology group’s Dr Richard Payne and Professor Dise collaborated with the Open and Lancaster Universities to examine 153 European grassland sites.

Levels of nitrogen found at the cleaner sites was below the legally-recognised ‘safe’ level, and prompted Professor Dise to advise against further pollution of clean areas.

The new research was conducted across sites with a variety of pollution levels to prevent skewing the data as previous studies may have.

“One of the drawbacks to previous studies is that most field experiments to establish limits on pollution are near the populated and polluted areas where most scientists live,” added Professor Dise.

“It may be that long-term exposure to even medium levels of pollution have already changed their ecosystems.”

So with Britain, the Netherlands, northern Germany and Brittany recording high nitrogen levels, the countryside may look a little less bright in years to come.

Picture courtesy of Dandelion and Burdock, with thanks.

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