Currently, change in lichen community structure depends on a combination of several pollutants instead of just one. Consequently, alpha lichen diversity no longer represents an effective response variable for assessing trends in atmospheric pollutants over time. Here we investigated the value of the relationship between alpha diversity and different aspects of gamma diversity (similarity, replacement and differences in richness of species) together with that of beta diversity (calculated as the sum of replacement and difference in richness of species), for assessing complex variations in epiphytic lichen communities in response to a changing pollution scenario. We considered an area subjected to extreme variation in atmospheric pollution in recent decades and explored temporal and spatial aspects of lichen community succession over short-, intermediate- and long-term reference periods. We found that variation in lichen communities for long- and intermediate-term reference periods was strongly dependent on the alpha diversity of single trees at the beginning of the observation period. The occurrence of nitrophytic species, which responded to the decrease in SO2 concentrations, contribute to this trend. The effect of land use was observed only over long observation periods, with trees in urban areas showing less variation than those located in rural areas. In particular, the analysis of similarity, species replacement and differences in richness of tree pairs demonstrated that trends and patterns within lichen communities are neither always nor to the same extent associated with alpha diversity. Our results show that a thorough study of gamma diversity, including beta diversity and similarity, is required to detect changes in air quality in long-term biomonitoring surveys.