The Scent of a Pine

By Sean Callahan in Mainely Conifers

Whenever I have to explain to a non-gardener why I spend so much time planting conifers in the yard, I toss off a response like “I’m accumulating carbon credits to help pay for my kids’ college tuition.” Or, the old standby, “I’m doing my part to combat global warming.”

Pine forest in Läänemaa, Estonia
Pine forest in Läänemaa, Estonia

A story in the February issue of Nature, the esteemed British science journal, seems to indicate that the latter response may not be so wild a dream.

As we know, one of the searing debates in environmental science over the past two decades has been whether the data being compiled on global warming is, in fact, scientifically valid. There are scientists on both sides of this issue. It has become politicized as well with blue staters largely decrying the end of the world and calling the opposition “deniers.” (Although, in one of those curious flips in etymology, the term once stood for the environmental scientists who challenged those scientists and industry spokesmen that dismissed the whole idea of global warming. The term is now being used to describe those who deny mounting evidence of climate change.) Across the aisle there are the red staters saying that this is just more left-wing propaganda to limit controls on industry that will stifle business opportunity and economic growth.

(Relax, guys. I just like the look of conifers year round and if it puts me in a better mood and makes for a better planet, what’s the big deal! )

However, in a paper recently published in the British journal Nature, atmospheric scientists in Germany and Finland have discovered a technology to measure the aroma of pine trees in the air (aerosols) and determine what the effect they may have on the larger mix of particulate matter (carbon emissions, volcanic ash, sand storm dust, etc.) that reflect sunlight back into space, promote the formation of clouds and thus, influence climate.

"If you go into a pine forest and notice that pine forest smell,” said lead author, Dr Mikael Ehn, of the University of Helsinki, “that could be the smell that actually limits climate change from reaching such levels that it could become really a problem in the world.”

There is still much work to be done in understanding how matter in the atmosphere may be creating the greenhouse effect on earth but with these new findings, these scientists feel that they have discovered a technique to accurately measure for the first time the role that pines in North America and northern Europe play in defining what is really happening up there.

Pine forest in Sweden
Pine forest in Sweden

Once, many years ago, I was working a story about the unhealthy effect a mill was having on the air quality in Transylvania County, North Carolina. The mill made paper for the cigarette industry. When I questioned an official about the funny smell in the air, he gave me a hard look. (I deserved it; I looked like the hippie reporter from up north that I was.) “What smell is that, boy?," he said. “All I smell is money.”

With that in mind, now I have a new riposte for those who question my growing and fragrant pinetum. “That’s the smell of a greener planet, boy.”