“The aroma of a pine forest on a warm summer day is down to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Cedar, cypress and eucalyptus owe their pungent aromas to their unique blends of these organics. With climate change, we are set for more VOCs and a more fragrant world.”5

The Science      

The chemical profile of a forest—determined by ecosystems, plant matter, and environmental conditions—results in a unique ‘cocktail' of atmospheric reactions.4 These in turn affect the level of tropospheric ozone and aerosols in the atmosphere, which can both reflect and absorb solar energy and, when combined with anthropogenic pollution, lead to effects like ozone smog which impact climate and human health. The type of trees in a forest, take for instance a rainforest replaced by a palm oil plantation, “will shift the chemistry in the sky above.”5 However, the complexity and invisibility of these interactions make it hard for us to comprehend such changes. Interestingly, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that trees emit are also responsible for the smells we perceive on a walk in the woods. 

4. Toma, S., and S. Bertman. "The atmospheric potential of biogenic volatile organic compounds from needles of white pine (Pinus strobus) in Northern Michigan.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 12, no. 4, 2012, p. 2245.

5. King, Anthony. “A Volatile Question”. Chemistry, 28 January, 2016.

The Project      

Forests pre-logging smelled different from today's forests, and that smell is ever-changing as forest succession and climate change march on. This project is a sensory teaching tool to talk about the delicate complexity of our forests in a warming climate. We are distilling essential oils from dominant plant species during specific time periods in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, to create scent combinations that map forest succession. Our olfactory sense is know to trigger memories—and by association, one might say that smell is linked to time in human perception.

Fragrance is relatable across cultures and generations due to its long history in human civilization. After all, perfumes are used to change our bodies’ personal atmosphere—reminding us that, like trees, our being is an open-ended system permeable to environmental changes.