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Picture of the Map lichen or Rhizocarpon geographicum, the most used lichen in lichenometry.

In archeology, paleontology, and geomorphology, lichenometry is a geomorphic method of geochronologic aging that uses lichen growth to determine the age of exposed rock: lichens are presumed to increase in size radially at specific rates as they grow. Measuring the diameter of the largest lichen of a species on a rock surface can therefore be used to determine the amount of time that the rock has been exposed. Lichen can be preserved on old rock faces for up to 10,000 years, providing the maximum age limit of the technique, though is most accurate (within 10% error) when applied to surfaces that have been exposed for less than 1000 years[1]. The use of lichenometry is of increased value for dating deposited surfaces over the past 500 years as radiocarbon dating techniques are less efficient over this period.[2] The most common lichen used for lichenometry are that of the genus Rhizocarpon, for example the Rhizocarpon geographicum, and those of the genus Xanthoria.

Lichenometry can provide dates for glacial deposits in tundra environments, lake level changes, glacial moraines, trim lines, rockfalls, talus (scree) stabilization and former extent of permafrost or very persistent snow cover.

Among the potential problems of the technique are the difficulty of correctly identifying the species, delay between exposure and colonization, varying growth rates from region to region as well as the fact that growth rates are not always constant over time, dependence of the rate of growth upon substrate texture and composition, climate, and determining which lichen is the largest.[2]

It was first employed by Knut Fægri in 1933, though the first exclusively lichenometric paper was not published until 1950, by Austrian Roland Beschel ,[3] in a paper concerning the European Alps[4].

Lichenometry has also been explored as a tool in assessing the speed of glacier retreat due to climate change.[5]


Several methods exist for dating surfaces with help of lichenometry, the most simple relies on a single largest lichen while other methods uses more. There is also differences in the way the lichen is measured, while some suggest that the largest diameter should be measured other scientists prefers the diamter of the largest inscribed circle. A problem in dating lichens is the fact that several thalli can fuse together making several minor lichens appears as a larger one of older age.[6] Lichenometrist Tom Bradwell have listed the following five method families as the principal ones into which most other methods can be classified:

  • Largest lichen (LL): When the single largest lichen of a species is used it means that the lichen that is oldest or grows in most favorable conditions is used to date the minimum age of the exposed surface. This was the original lichenometric from which others then developed or used as reference. Despite relying upon a single lichen this technique is praised for its simplicity and allows obtaining an image of the age of rock exposure while still in the field.[7]
  • Largest five lichens (5LL): This method is a development of the LL and was developed in the 1970s to avoid reliance on one single pontentially anomalous lichen. It has been proved the neither accuracy or precision improves significantly by having more than five liches.[7]
  • Fixed-area largest lichen (FALL): This technique was initially specially designed for dating rockfalls and talus cones with no uniform age of deposition. The largest thallus is a unit area is measured. The sample areas are usually boulders with surfaces of about 1 m2[7]
  • Size-frequency approach (SF): The analyze of size and frequency of lichens was initially done in order to study lichen populations and preexisting thalli growing on surfaces, but has afterwards also been used as an effective absolute and relative dating method.[7]
  • Lichen cover approach (LC):' This method works with the premise of that the area covered by a single species will increase over time, and by measuring the total area percentage covered by a certain lichen species the age of exposure can be inferred.[7]


  1. ^ Sowers, J.M., Noller, J.S., and Lettis, W.R., eds., 1997, Dating and Earthquakes: Review of Quaternary Geochronology and its Application to Paleoseismology. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NUREG/CR 5562.
  2. ^ a b John L. Innes. "Lichenometry". Progress in Physical Geography 9 (187).  
  3. ^ Beschel R. (1950). "Flechten als Altersmasstab rezenter Moränen." Zeitschrift für Gletscherkunde und Glazialgeologie 1: 152–161.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Richard Armstrong (September 2004). "Lichens, Lichenometry, and Global Warming". Microbiologist: 32–35.  
  6. ^ Lichen, Lichenometry and Global Warming
  7. ^ a b c d e Bradwell, Tom 2009. Lichenometric Dating: A commentary in the light of some recent statistical studies. Geografiska Annaler.


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