Does snow have a smell?
It sounds a little crazy to say out loud that snow has a smell. It’s almost like saying a glass of distilled water has a smell.
The water that falls from the sky is very pure. The only contaminates are the ones that we're already breathing in the air around us, so why would snow have a smell?
The reason is a combination of a few different factors: moisture in the atmosphere, falling temperatures and human anatomy.
Each season seems to have its own smell. Blooming flowers abound in spring. In summer, the scents of fresh plant life, sunscreen and barbecues fill the air. Fall’s unique aroma is thanks to the rotting and decaying leaves on the ground.
Winter, however, is different. It’s almost odorless due to the cold that freezes almost everything.
If you start asking around, though, you’ll find many people say they can smell snow. Ask for a description, and responses like “fresh” or “cold” or “it just smells” are what you get.
Those words give us a hint as to what is going on when we smell snow.
Science behind the smell
In order to smell snow, we need snow to actually form. For this to happen there needs to be moisture in the atmosphere.
That moisture does a couple things. First, it turns into clouds and the precipitation that falls from the sky. It also heightens your sense of smell.
It’s like when you’re not aware that you smell like smoke after a campfire, but then you get a noseful of the odor when you shower later. It’s the moisture in the air during the shower that helps you smell something that you otherwise might not have.
Besides moisture, the second thing you need in order to smell snow is dropping temperatures. As those fall from above freezing to below, particles in the atmosphere slow down.
The slowing particles mean less activity in the air, and with less activity there are fewer odors fighting for your attention. So, smells that you might have otherwise missed become more pronounced.
The final factor is something that happens inside your body. It’s what explains the ambiguous smell of snow or the inability to describe it with other, familiar smells.
The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensations in your face and functions like chewing or biting, but it’s also what lets you sense the cold air entering your body. Your brain groups the trigeminal nerve together with your olfactory system so when you breathe in the cold, wet air, your brain processes it as a unique smell.
This is why the smell of snow is something that is almost impossible to describe to someone who has not smelled it before. They just have to experience it for themselves.
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