Can you actually smell rain? - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Can you actually smell rain?

(Photo: Flickr/Praveen) (Photo: Flickr/Praveen)
CINCINNATI (FOX19) -

When someone says “it smells like rain,” what do they mean? Does rain really smell?  Well yes, it does. Here’s what’s actually going on.

A rainstorm has a multiple distinct smells. Before, during, and after the rainfall, the atmosphere smells different at each individual stage.

One of the first smells we notice occurs after the discharge of lightning. Lightning helps in the formation of Ozone by splitting atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules into separate atoms.

However, Mother Nature wants to recombine the molecules and sometimes accidentally triples up the oxygen atoms into a single molecule, O3 (normal oxygen is O2). Ozone, or O3 smells different than O2. I guess we’re just used to the smell of O2 and don’t really notice it until it’s “different.”

The next thing we notice is the smell of rain on dry ground. 

Actinobacteria is common in most soil types and, as raindrops hit the ground the actinobacteria releases spores into the air. Some actinobacteria reproduce by creating spores known as actinomycetes. As the rain hits the ground these actinomycete spores are carried into the air where we can smell them. The smell is most noticeable after a dry period.

Once the rain has passed there is yet another smell -- that of a musty-earthy smell and damp ground. This is essentially the once-dried oil from certain plants again, being released into the air where we can smell them.

So, when someone says “it smells like rain,” there’s actually a bit of science to back up the claim.

We’re expecting a bit of rain this weekend. I hope the weekend doesn’t stink.

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