Research

How Rain Gets Its Smell

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Light rain after a dry spell often produces a distinctive earthy scent called petrichor that is associated with plant oils and bacteria products. How these chemicals get into the air has been unclear, but new research suggests that the mechanism may come from the rain itself. When water falls on a porous surface like soil, tiny air bubbles get trapped beneath the drop. These bubbles rise rapidly due to buoyancy and, upon reaching the surface, burst and release tiny droplets known as aerosols. Depending on the surface properties and the drop’s impact speed, a single drop can produce a cloud of aerosol droplets. The research team is now investigating how readily bacteria or pathogens in the soil can spread through this mechanism. Other human-focused research has already shown that these tiny aerosol droplets can persist in the air for remarkably long periods and may help spread diseases. (Video credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology; research credit: Y. Joung and C. Buie; submitted by Daniel B and entropy-perturbation)

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