What Causes the Smell of Rain?

Rain is often associated with particular smells. But, rain itself is odorless. So, where do these aromas come from?

The distinctive scent that lingers in the air after a rainstorm is known as petrichor. It is the product of two reactions that occur when rainwater hits the ground. Its main driver is a soil-dwelling bacteria called actinomycetes. These microorganisms thrive in moist conditions, but as the soil dries out, they produce spores. These are then released into the air by the moisture and force with which the rain hits the ground. This happens at the same time the rainwater is mixing with oils that were secreted by plants onto nearby rocks and soil during times of dryness. Together these reactions produce the musky petrichor smell, which is particularly strong after a long dry spell. The term was coined in 1964 by two Australian scientists, Isabel Joy Bear and RG Thomson. They derived it from the Greek words, “petra” meaning stone and “ichor”, the term used to describe the blood of the gods in ancient mythology.

A different, and often more pungent, rain smell is associated with thunderstorms. After the powerful electric charge of a lightning bolt splits the oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere, they often recombine as nitric oxide. This, in turn, interacts with other atmospheric chemicals to form ozone (O3). When people say they can “smell the rain coming”, this is the scent they detect as it often arrives in the wind ahead of an approaching storm.

Credit: freepik

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About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is an environmental communicator and visual artist working at the intersection of art and science. She is passionate about exploring, learning, and sharing information about the natural world. She has presented her interdisciplinary work in a variety of mediums at venues and conferences around the world.