University of Utah Researchers Discover that Evergreens –Yes, Evergreen Trees– Can Monitor Air Pollution

by Arun

This past week, two researchers on the campus of the University of Utah (Peter Lippert and Grant Rea-Downing) who were conducting a project involving measuring magnetism of particulate matter on the needles of evergreen trees discovered that the magnetism they measured had a distinct correlation to the air quality in the area. The discovery reveals a new wave of thought processes for scientists and government officials in determining air quality and uncovers the possibility of a shift from standard air quality monitors dispersed through cities.

The findings come in wake of what has been some of the most deadly forest fires spread across the nation, concentrated on the west coast. The forest fires that mainly originated in California have now spread to 11 U.S. states, with no end in view. Air quality has severely deteriorated in the surrounding regions, with homes and loved ones being lost. With the increased focus on air quality given the recent events, these researching scientists offer a unique way of determining air quality in local regions that do not have air quality monitors.

How does it work?

As demonstrated by the scientists, the actual science behind their findings is actually less complicated than initially seems. Particulate matter, which is generally dispersed through the air (which comes as a result of natural dust, burning of fossil fuels), eventually settles on surrounding objects, namely trees. Some of these particles contain iron, which can be detected by magnetometers. From reading the magnetometer, the researchers were able to determine the amount of particulate matter present on the trees, which can offer air quality readings.

Their process works for any given tree, actually, though they chose to work with evergreens because of their abundant presence in the university’s campus, as well as for the large surface area on the needles and leaves of the evergreen tree.

The scientists are the first to admit that although they are not the first to “explore the magnetism of pine needles to monitor air quality,” they are the first to “study winter inversions in the basins of the American West.”

With their findings, the scientist carried out further research in hopes of making air quality monitors accessible to a broader audience. Trees are everywhere in the world’s landscape, and with their further research that aims to perfect and offer more insights through their measures, they aim to achieve their goal of “democratiz[ing] [their] ability to monitor air pollution across the valley… it allows us to do more with less.” Their findings are promising, and as they carry out follow-up segments of their research, the potential advancements of measuring air quality and offering it to all is an exciting thought.