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Soil and water being splashed by a raindrop

Petrichor (/ˈpɛtrɪkɔːr/) is the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. The word is constructed from Greek petra (πέτρα), "rock", or petros (πέτρος), "stone", and īchōr (ἰχώρ), the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.



Long before this phenomenon received its name in 1964, it had been noticed and discussed in scientific circles.

On 17 April 1891, a brief note on the phenomenon, by Thomas Lambe Phipson (1833-1908) [fr], appeared in The Chemical News[1] -- it was re-published in its entirety, a month later, in The Scientific American[2] -- in which he wrote, "This subject, with which I was occupied more than twenty-five years ago, appears from a paragraph in a late number of the Chemical News[3] to have recently attracted the attention of Professor Berthelot and [Monsieur G.] Andre."

Phipson was referring to a short paper read by Berthelot and André at the meeting of the French Académie des Sciences on 23 April 1891, and printed in Volume 112 (1891) of Comptes Rendus, entitled "Sur l'Odeur propre de la Terre" ("On the clean smell of the earth").[4][5]

Phipson continues, "I find, on referring to my old notes, which are dated 1865, that it is doubtful whether I ever published the results of these observations; and as the distinguished chemists I have just named have not quite solved the problem, I hasten to give the results I obtained so long ago." He then theorizes that the odour "... was due to the presence of organic substances closely related to the essential oils of plants ..." and that these substances consist of "... the fragrance emitted by thousands of flowers ..." absorbed into the pores of the soil, and only released when displaced by rain. After attempts to isolate it, he found that it "... appeared to be very similar to, if not identical with, bromo-cedren derived from essence of cedar."


The phenomenon was first scientifically described in a March 1964 paper by Australian researchers Isabel Bear and Dick Thomas, published in the journal Nature.[6][7][8][9] Thomas coined the term "petrichor" to refer to what had previously been known as "argillaceous odour".[10] 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.[11] In a follow-up paper, Bear and Thomas (1965) showed that the oil slows seed germination and early plant growth.[12]


In 2015, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) used high-speed cameras to record how the scent moves into the air.[13] The tests involved approximately 600 experiments on 28 different surfaces, including engineered materials and soil samples.[13] When a raindrop lands on a porous surface, air from the pores forms small bubbles, which float to the surface and release aerosols.[13] Such aerosols carry the scent, as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil.[13] 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. Actinomycetes is the bacterium responsible for producing spores in soil.[13]

The human nose is extremely sensitive to geosmin and is able to detect it at concentrations as low as 400 parts per trillion.[14] Some scientists believe that humans appreciate the rain scent because ancestors may have relied on rainy weather for survival.[15]

See also[edit]

  • Geosmin, the substance responsible for the odour of earth.
  • Dimethyl sulfide, one of the molecules responsible for the odour of the sea.


  1. ^ Phipson, T.L., Cause of the Odour Emitted by the Soil of a Garden after a Summer Shower", The Chemical News, Vol.63, No.1638, (17 April 1891, p.179.
  2. ^ Phipson, T.L. (May 16, 1891). "The Odor of the Soil after a Shower". Scientific American. 64 (20): 308. JSTOR 26100386.
  3. ^ Specific Odour of Soil", The Chemical News, Vol.63, No.1637, (10 April 1891), p.179.
  4. ^ "Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l'Académie des sciences". 1891/01 (Tome 112): 598–599. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ Logan, Tim (August 27, 2018). "Why You Can Smell Rain". The Conversation. Retrieved July 14, 2020. A weather expert explains petrichor – that pleasant, earthy scent that accompanies a storm’s first raindrops.
  6. ^ Bear, Isabel Joy; Thomas, Richard G. (March 1964). "Nature of argillaceous odour". Nature. 201 (4923): 993–995. Bibcode:1964Natur.201..993B. doi:10.1038/201993a0. S2CID 4189441. The diverse nature of the host materials has led us to propose the name 'petrichor' for this apparently unique odour which can be regarded as an 'ichor' or 'tenuous essence' derived from rock or stone […] it does not imply that petrichor is necessarily a fixed chemical entity but rather it denotes an integral odour, variable within a certain easily recognizable osmic latitude.
  7. ^ "The Smell of Rain". Weatherwise. 33 (2): 91. 1980. doi:10.1080/00431672.1980.9931898. Apparently, the printed text is a copy from CSIRO journal Ecos, issue February 1976, p. 32.
  8. ^ 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. Actually print of A.Word.A.Day --petrichor.
  9. ^ Poynton, Howard (March 31, 2015). "The smell of rain: how CSIRO invented a new word". The Conversation.
  10. ^ Ward, Colin (11 April 2014). "Isabel 'Joy' Bear". CSIROpedia. CSIRO. Retrieved 9 May 2020. Thomas gave the name 'petrichor' to this odour.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Bear, Isabel Joy; Thomas, Richard G. (September 1965). "Petrichor and plant growth". Nature. 207 (5005): 1415–1416. Bibcode:1965Natur.207.1415B. doi:10.1038/2071415a0. S2CID 4174301.
  13. ^ a b c d e Chu, Jennifer (14 January 2015). "Rainfall can release aerosols, study finds". MIT News. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  14. ^ Polak, E.H.; Provasi, J. (1992). "Odor sensitivity to geosmin enantiomers". Chemical Senses. 17: 23–26. doi:10.1093/chemse/17.1.23.
  15. ^ Palermo, Elizabeth (21 June 2013). "Why Does Rain Smell Good?". Live Science. Retrieved 17 January 2015.


  • Bear, I.J. & Thomas, R.G., "Genesis of Petrichor", Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Vol.30, No.9, (September 1966), pp.869-879.

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