Can You Smell Rain Coming?

Nov 16, 2017
Can You Smell Rain Coming?

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Have you ever wondered why we can smell the rain coming? 

My grandfather could even track squirrels with his sense of smell. What he was best known for, however, was his incredible nose for weather.

He could tell a storm was approaching before anyone else in the county. One of my father’s earliest memories was running to warn neighbors that bad storms were coming so that they could get things covered.

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Most of us have smelt approaching storms. Source: Wikipedia

Most of us have probably smelt that lovely fresh, earthy aroma of an approaching rain storm. He could smell it coming and even warn people about the strength and likelihood of tornadoes. (He went nuts once when he smelt a hurricane coming.)

He was an educated man (and became superintendent of the Vanderbilt, Texas school system) but the most educated part of him was his nose. In an era when radio coverage was spotty, especially in the country, the neighborhood practically thought of him as a medicine man.

Now scientists have discovered why people can smell the storms so far away. A sensitive snout is smelling ozone, petrichor and geosmin; in other words, the nose smells oxygen, the debris that raindrops kick up and wet bacteria.

First comes the ozone, the oxygen fried by lightening that changes its chemistry for O2 to O3. This has a sweet, pungent zing and winds carry it down from the upper atmosphere to your waiting nose. If you smell a lot of that—look out!

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Ozone is produced by lightning, including this monster strike. Source Wikipedia

Then comes the raindrops. Scientists discovered that water drops hitting surfaces like soil or leaves knock particles up in the air. A raindrop hitting an uneven surface traps bubbles of air that shoot upwards and burst from the top of the water droplet like fizz in a champagne glass. These bubbles can float long distances before they pop and you can smell the pollens, dirt, oils or city scum. Nature’s champagne is called petrichor.

Finally, the wet soil triggers the bacteria or blue-green algae to release geosmin, that great earthy smell so loved by gardeners. 

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Drops of water spray aerosols into the air that you can smell downwind. Source: Wikipedia

That explains why my grandfather’s educated nose could smell approaching storms. How he tracked those squirrels through the woods remains a mystery.

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to "Weather Whispers" by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these blog posts. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.

Reader Comments

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Smelling the rain?

Yes, I can smell the rain coming, and sometimes the snow, too. I could always do that. I knew that if the scent on the wind was sharp and wet, it meant rain in the summer and snow in the fall and winter, and maybe in the spring, too.
In addition, I get some really nasty sinus headaches when the front edge of a pressure front goes through my area. It feels like my face is being squeezed, and lasts about an hour. It's extremely unpleasant but there is no remedy for it because it is caused by a change in barometric pressure. Just have to sit it out.

Smelling rain since a Lifeguard

Odd phenomenon but since smelled the rain when working as a lifeguard at 16. My 1st job-I didnt need to see clouds. I could smell the rain long before it his our area. When it got within a few miles, you can see it when looking in light--no sunlight. Normally the conditions when its cloudy.

2 big hints there. Smells wet and eventually, there is a dark mass in the sky --rains coming.

rain coming

My Mom used to yell at we kids,"Come and help me get the wash off the line. I heard a rain crow". She was right every time. This was in the 1940's.

smell weather

well i cant smell weather but i can feel it in my knees and neck vertebra when its gonna rain.I always tell everyone at work when i feel barometer changes in those bones i mentioned

Smelling rain

Lovely post. Makes me want to go outside right now and smell the weather! Some of my strongest memories are the smells of the weather or season as I walked through our property and a large parkland to school. When I smell those smells now it takes me right back. Nothing better. I love to hear someone say "it smells like rain" or "It's going to snow. Can you smell it?!" Of course, I say, "Yes!"

weather forcast

I love Evelyn Garriss forecast.she goes into such detail. cant get that on t.v. very informative.looking forward to her next blog.

Corrections...

Apparently, my spell check isn't working this morning...by looking at the sky, I know when a tornado is near.

Sensing storms

I, too, can smell the rain coming. By looking ash the sky, I know when a tornado is weird...one I knew was near was near Seattle when I was out there for business training...I asked the hotel manager of they had a tornado emergency plan and he looked at me like I had 3 heads and told me they don't get tornados. I watched the sky from my window, the storm came through, and when I want downstairs later, the manager told me he couldn't believe it...there was a tornado 2 miles from the hotel. I can also tell 2 days ahead of time of precipitation is coming...my normal pain level is elevated...as the low pressure system moves closer, my pain intensifies. It subsides once the storm passes.

Weather

Have you read Isaac's Storm?

Smelling rain

No, but I can smell snow coming. Most often when snow is predicted, I can correctly predict whether it will happen hours before it happens..or not.

Smelling rain

I too can smell rain. I love it.

By the way, smelt is not a word. It should be smelled. .-)

Smelt

Smelt IS a word. Not everyone speaks American English.

smelling weather

Yes I'm one of those who can smell weather! I can also smell seasons, spring being the strongest. I always thought everyone else could and was surprised to find out they couldn't.

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