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Study looks into the fragrances of forests stressed by drought

John Adams
University of Arizona
Jason Deleeuw, Biosphere 2 terrestrial biome manager, climbs the frame above the rainforest to collect leaves and samplers placed overnight to link leaf climate, microbiome and volatile organic compound emissions.

News brief

Researchers at the University of Arizona forced a severe drought on a controlled rainforest environment to measure certain gasses released by plants that indicate drought stress. And those gasses have scents.

The results of the experiment, described in a study published this month in Nature, could help scientists "sniff out" when forests are in distress.

“I think it’s exciting and overwhelming in some ways that it’s a whole bouquet of fragrances that we’re measuring and trying to de-code which ones are telling us what,” said Laura Meredith, an assistant professor in the school of nature resources and the environment at the University of Arizona who co-authored the study.

Plants emit gasses called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, many of which have a unique scent — some smell of pine, others signal an insect infestation. The research team forced a drought on UA's Biosphere 2 – an encapsulated rainforest – for three months and, using lots of tubing and sensors, measured those VOC emissions.

"If we can pinpoint (VOCs') unique signatures and the biological processes behind them," Merideth was quoted as saying in a news release about the study, "we could fly an aircraft over the Amazon rainforest, for instance, and essentially measure and sniff out what's happening on the ground."

And she says that could also apply in the Mountain West.

“Which regions are under drought stress? What might that mean then with increasing drought severity and frequency? With climate change, it could help us be more prepared for fire seasons,” she said.

She added that some gasses can also promote cloud formations that bring much-needed rain.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.