Petrichor (//) is the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. The word is constructed from Greek, petra, meaning ‘stone’, + ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.
The term was coined in 1964 by two researchers, Isabel Joy Bear (Australian) and Roderick G. Thomas (British), for an article in the journal Nature. In the article, the authors describe how the smell derives from an oil exuded by certain plants during dry periods, whereupon it is absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks. During rain, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain Actinobacteria, which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent; ozone may also be present if there is lightning. In a follow-up paper, Bear and Thomas (1965) showed that the oil retards seed germination and early plant growth. This would indicate that the plants exude the oil in order to safeguard the seeds from germination under duress.
In 2015, MIT scientists used high-speed cameras to record how the scent moves into the air. The tests involved approximately 600 experiments on 28 different surfaces, including engineered materials and soil samples. When a raindrop lands on a porous surface, air from the pores forms small bubbles which float to the surface and release aerosols. Such aerosols carry the scent as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil. Raindrops that move at a slower rate tend to produce more aerosols; this serves as an explanation for why the petrichor is more common after light rains.
Some scientists believe that humans appreciate the rain scent because ancestors may have relied on rainy weather for survival.
- Bear, Isabel Joy; Thomas, Roderick G. (March 1964). "Nature of argillaceous odour". Nature 201 (4923): 993–995. doi:10.1038/201993a0.
- Garg, Anu (2007). The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado Or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Words. Penguin. p. 399. ISBN 9780452288614.
- Yuhas, Daisy (July 18, 2012). "Storm Scents: It's True, You Can Smell Oncoming Summer Rain: Researchers have teased out the aromas associated with a rainstorm and deciphered the olfactory messages they convey". Scientific American. Retrieved July 20, 2012.
- Bear, Isabel Joy; Thomas, Roderick G. (September 1965). "Petrichor and plant growth". Nature 207 (5005): 1415–1416. doi:10.1038/2071415a0.
- Cooper-White, Macrina (15 January 2015). "Here's Why Rain Has That Distinctive Smell". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- Chu, Jennifer (14 January 2015). "Rainfall can release aerosols, study finds". MIT News. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- Palermo, Elizabeth (21 June 2013). "Why Does Rain Smell Good?". LiveScience.com. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
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