The Sights, Sounds And Smells Of Storms

by Kevin Burton

   In the three plus years I lived in the Pacific Northwest I can only recall one honest-to-God thunderstorm.

   Some co-workers were talking about it in my carpool going to work.  I said “Yeah that was excellent!”

   They thought that was quaint I guess because they retold the story a lot, “…he said it was excellent…”

   Not too much about Alaska reminded me of home. That did. 

   In Washington State all you got was that maddening misty rain. It was so light I went without an umbrella, but was sometimes soaked by the time I got to my destination. 

   I’ve jumped around the country some and even lived in Mexico (as an English teacher) and in Bermuda (as a catcher of lizards). I’ve always made my way back to the Midwest though, as if the continent were curved somehow.

   One of my favorite hallmarks of Midwest existence is the thunderstorm.  We had a small one Tuesday.  It made me smile.

   And the season for thunderstorms is here!

    Lightning flashes, thunder crashes, and I’m in my element.  I turn the music down low, or off altogether.

   Here is the short version of what causes thunderstorms.

   “All thunderstorms need the same ingredients: moisture, unstable air and lift,” reads a passage on  “Moisture usually comes from oceans. Unstable air forms when warm, moist air is near the ground and cold dry air is above. Lift comes from differences in air density. It pushes unstable air upward, creating a tall thunderstorm cloud.” 

   The smell of an oncoming storm is unmistakable and stirs memories as well as anticipation.  It triggers in me, the same reaction as driving by a bread factory and breathing in that smell.

   I turned to the Farmer’s Almanac online to tell me why we can smell storms coming. They had the answer but their source was Wikipedia.  Seems like it should be the other way around. 

   Anyway here’s the scoop.

   “Scientists have discovered why people can smell storms so far away. A sensitive snout is smelling ozone, petrichor and geosmin; in other words, the nose smells oxygen, the debris that raindrops kick up and wet bacteria.”

   “First comes the ozone, the oxygen fried by lightning that changes its chemistry for O2 to O3. This has a sweet, pungent zing and winds carry it down from the upper atmosphere to your waiting nose. If you smell a lot of that—look out!”

   “Then come the raindrops. Scientists discovered that water drops hitting surfaces like soil or leaves knock particles up in the air. A raindrop hitting an uneven surface traps bubbles of air that shoot upwards and burst from the top of the water droplet like fizz in a champagne glass. These bubbles can float long distances before they pop and you can smell the pollens, dirt, oils or city scum. Nature’s champagne is called petrichor.”

   “Finally, the wet soil triggers the bacteria or blue-green algae to release geosmin, that great earthy smell so loved by gardeners.”

   Storm science is cool but I’m all about the pure romance of storms.  One of God’s greatest inventions.

   In the old days Gil Whitney told me all I needed to know about storms. He was the weather man on WHIO-TV, channel 7 in Dayton, Ohio.  He told us there was such a thing as Auglaize County and gave us their weather as well as our own.  He talked about wooly worms being able to predict the weather.

   Whitney was quite popular with viewers and with his co-workers. Later on he had a variety show on channel 7. He died young, of cancer. 

   I used to think the TV weather persons were bona fide meteorologists by definition. By the time I discovered David Letterman had been a weather man, I had given up that notion.

   But no matter what, you can’t beat a good thunderstorm.  The dazzling light show. That rumbling, booming sound. What a cure for the blues! Nothing calms me, reassures me like a storm.

   Yes, I think they are excellent.

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