Salt Lake City, the northern Wasatch Front, and the Uinta Basin all had high concentrations of ground-level ozone this year. When it occurs in the upper atmosphere, ozone is good for organisms because it blocks harmful UV rays. But when it occurs at ground level, ozone harms plants and animals by burning the tissues they use to breathe.
Ground-level ozone is formed when pollutants react with sunlight.
“Ozone oxidizes cellular membranes, and so when you breathe it in it can make your lungs look swollen and red,” said Dr. Danica Lombardozzi, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
According to Lombardozzi, the oxidization of cellular membranes can be a problem for both people and plants.
“Plants have little pores on the bottom of their leaves. The ozone can get inside the plants and it damages the cellular membranes in the plants as well. If plants are harmed by ozone, they won’t be producing as much food,” she said.
Lombardozzi is interested in when ozone harms plants, and at what concentrations ozone harms plants. She is hoping to answer these questions by tracking ozone damage in official ozone gardens by observing plants that have varying sensitivities to the pollutant.
“In your own gardens at home, quaking aspen, ponderosa pine trees and cut leaf coneflowers are bio-indicators," she said. "Symptoms characteristic of ozone damage start off as small spots on the top surface of leaves, and it almost looks like you took a ballpoint pen and just marked a bunch of small dots. The leaf veins will look bright green but the leaf will have dark damaged spots.”
The nearest official ozone gardens are in Colorado, but it’s possible to track how ozone pollution affects your own garden. If you are interested in planting your own official ozone garden, you can find details at on Ozone Bioindicator Garden Project's website.