Storm Scents

Ever smelled a storm before it happened? Smelled the rain before it actually rained? A team of researchers took those aromas and deciphered their meaning. It’s true that someone with a sensitive nose can smell the rain before the drops fall down because the atmosphere actually lets out distinctive odors. These scents are even stronger when it rains after a long dry spell. So what does a storm smell like exactly?

According to Scientific American the odors are broken down into 3 common scents.

The first thing you smell is the pungent zing of the ozone (a form of oxygen). “Ozone emanates from fertilizers and pollutants as well as natural sources. An electrical charge—from lightning or a man-made source such as an electrical generator—splits atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules into separate atoms. Some of these recombine into nitric oxide, and this in turn reacts with other atmospheric chemicals, occasionally producing a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms—ozone, or O3. (Most atmospheric oxygen is made up of two atoms—O2.)”, says Tropospheric chemist Louisa Emmons at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. What we smell is the O3 that downdrafts from higher levels before and during a storm.

Falling water also brings other odors to our noses that can come from plants or in the city from asphalt. The name given to this kind of scent is petrichor and it was first described in 1964. “It occurs when airborne molecules from decomposing plant or animal matter become attached to mineral or clay surfaces. During a dry spell, these molecules chemically recombine with other elements on a rock’s surface. Then when the rains came, the redolent combination of fatty acids, alcohols and hydrocarbons is released.”

The aroma of the wet earth is known as geosmin, a metabolic by-product of bacteria or blue-green algae.

These aromas have meaningful messages to the inhabitants of this earth. For freshwater fish petrichor signals them that it’s spawning time. And in the desert, geosmin leads camels to oases. And for the Aboriginal people in Australia‘s Western Desert “the odor is believed to be protective and cleansing, linking present generations to their ancestors.”

For the full article [Click Here]

Would you be interested in smelling the rain while listening to soothing rain drops during meditation/relaxation? Please let us know in a comment. Hope everyone had a wonderful weekend.


2 thoughts on “Storm Scents

  1. Yes i would very interested in smelling the scent of rain on command. Is it possible? How accurate is this? Surely you mean the smell of damp earth and not the rain per se? Where can i source a sample of this fragrance to check out please?

    • Hi George,
      The smell of rain – or a (rain) storm – as presented in the recap of a Scientific American article and the follow-on blog musings is something that we “have each experienced.” As stated its origin is diffuse, the chemistry is illusive, and if we were able to reprise the pieces – petrichor, geosmin, ozone + the many, many residues of its reactions with other airborn organic molecules – and put them into a bottle we would not have recreated the smells described, the very fragrance that you want. The simplest reason is that the smells that we smell (that we experience) occur because of their highly-diluted presence in the air (parts per billion and even more dilute) when we encounter the storm. Or, to borrow from Pamela Dalton, we smell these highly-diluted artifacts in the air during a storm and we create an olfactory component to our personal multi-sensory record that defines this storm and maybe any storm for each of us individually.

      Back to your question. Many of us – olfactory biologists, physical organic chemists, sensory psychologists, etc. – are working to create this experiential smell and others like it every day. We can assemble the “liquid in a bottle” but we still need to fine tune its delivery to your nose and do it safely. Stay tuned.

      Jerry Bertrand

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