Desert Scents

With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science, medical and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

Desert Aromatherapy

Monsoon season brings a flurry of fragrant scents that every desert dweller in Tucson looks forward to in the summer months. That delicious smell, signaling the arrival of desert rain, may also signal health benefits. University of Arizona Southwest Center Research Social Scientist Gary Nabhan lead research into two studies on how the volatile organic compounds that evolved to project desert plants may also have the added benefit of positively impacting human health. Nabhan was inspired by an ancient technique originating from the forests of Eastern Asia. “Forest bathing” is a meditative practice that asks participants to spend more time in nature to assist in mental well-being. Nabhan wanted to recreate these conditions for study in Arizona, but the closest forest is on Mount Lemmon. “But then I thought, some of those same compounds are found in desert plants,” Nabhan said in a UA press release, “and we know we have tremendous fragrances at certain times of the year, especially right after the thunderstorms of the monsoon.” Nabhan, along with Eric Daugherty, a former intern at the Southwest Center, and Tammi Hartung, a co-owner of Desert Canyon Farm in Canyon City, Colorado, worked on identifying 115 volatile organic compounds in 60 species of plants in the Sonoran Desert. These compounds are released before, during and after the monsoons. Of these compounds, 15 have been shown in previous studies as having health benefits. “The fragrant volatile organic compounds from desert plants may in many ways contribute to improving sleep patterns, stabilizing emotional hormones, enhancing digestion, heightening mental clarity and reducing depression or anxiety,” Nabhan said in the press release. “Their accumulation in the atmosphere immediately above desert vegetation is what causes the smell of rain that many people report. It also reduces exposure to damaging solar radiation in ways that protect the desert plants themselves, the wildlife that use them as food and shelter, and the humans who dwell among them.” 

Sidewalk Sizzlin’

Ahead of the next season of heatwaves, University of Arizona researchers recently released a report to guide city planners on how to address temperature hikes in their communities. The report, “Planning for Urban Heat Resilience,” was authored by Ladd Keith, an assistant professor in the UA College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, and Arizona State University researcher Sara Meerow. The report states that city planners will need to take two major heat contributors into account. Climate change and the urban heat island effect will exacerbate heatwaves in the future. Climate change is already creating rising temperatures but the urban heat island effect is caused by the decrease of the natural environment and the increase of heat-trapping materials like asphalt. More asphalt and less plants is trapping heat and leading to higher temperatures. “A new study by The Nature Conservancy and the American engineering firm AECOM found that if increasingly extreme heat is not addressed, the economic consequences to the Phoenix metro region will cost between an average of $1.9 billion and $2.3 billion each year by 2059,” Keith said in a UA press release.

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