Dr Gilbert carried out his pioneering PhD in Biological Indicators of Air Pollution at Newcastle University in the 1960s, which led to a deeper understanding of how lichens react to pollution levels.
He believed passionately in making science accessible to all and would have been a key supporter of the new Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) Air Survey. OPAL is funded by the Big Lottery Fund and the survey is part of a wider initiative that aims to create and inspire a new generation of nature-lovers.
From the end of this month, local groups will be looking at lichens and also counting tar spots on sycamore leaves to build a better understanding about air quality across England. The regional launch for OPAL North East took place at the University's Moorbank Botanical Gardens on 12 September 2009.
There has not been such a large-scale investigation of air pollution since Dr Gilbert's simplified version of the Hawksworth & Rose scale enabled schoolchildren throughout the UK to take part in a national survey in 1974 to map "our mucky air".
Emeritus Professor of Environmental Biology Alan Davison, a former colleague of Dr Gilbert, is pleased to see that the work he began is now helping to inspire a new generation of scientists. "Oliver was a very entertaining and a larger than life character with an infectious quality about him," he said. "He was extremely passionate about his work and particularly skilled at getting young children interested in science. He had my young children absolutely captivated every time they met him."
Newcastle is a very different place today to that of the 1960s when Dr Gilbert was first examining lichen and other indicators of pollution.
Recent guidelines for monitoring the effects of sulphur dioxide on lichens state there should not be more than 10 microgrammes of SO2 per cubic metre (WHO Air Quality Guidelines for Europe 2000). When Dr Gilbert was carrying out his tests, on a good day in winter it was around 200 microgrammes -“seriously bad – bronchitis-inducing stuff”, said Professor Davison.
There was no tar spot and only one lichen to be found in Newcastle in the 1960s - Lecanora - which thrives on sulphur, and even this could not exist in the worst affected areas.
Today, various types of lichens and moss can be found all over the North East. The Grimmia moss, which Dr Gilbert found only the fringes of Morpeth in Northumberland, is now widespread. Its indication of better air quality was evident when he realised it literally split a street of houses in the town in two: the houses with central heating had evidence of Grimmia but the ones on the other side of the street, which had not been converted yet, had none.
For more information about OPAL North East and taking part in the air quality survey, contact Katy Barnard on firstname.lastname@example.org or 07902 647633.
published on: 14th September 2009