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We don't need no stinking snow

16 Feb 2022 | News Roundup

With the end of winter looming, and possibly humour as well, we had to get this one in now. Plus we couldn’t resist the headline. But it is fair, because the Washington Post says with a straight typeface that “Climate change is altering the smell of snow”. Possibly you didn’t know it had one. Water doesn’t. But here’s something you did know, right? If climate change is changing the bouquet, it’s for the worse. Bingo. Stand by for Eau gelé de vieux pneu.

Actually the Post goes to some lengths to say that snow does not smell, perhaps fearing raucous laughter if it claimed otherwise to people who have been out in it. Though of course it doesn’t stop the press from telling us winter ended while we’re knee-deep in our “boot route” which, for non-Canadians, is a shortcut you stomp through, for instance, the waist-high drifts on the lawn to the driveway, aka the “cold cut”, according to a long-ago local contest that also came up with “slamboni” for when the snow shovel stops dead on some buried ice and rams you in the belly. In Canada that one’s hilarious. Trust us.

Now back to the fragrance of no smell. “How would you describe the scent of winter?” the Post feature starts. “Unlike spring, summer and fall, which have strongly defined aromas (flowers in bloom, beaches, decaying leaves), the current season is marked by the scent of nothing. Nothing’s growing. Nothing’s dying. It’s a kind of olfactory pause.”

Uh, no story then? Eau de contraire. It seems connoisseurs of snow, like those of any substance, have the capacity to detect, debate and descant over subtleties a spectrograph would miss. “Johan Lundstrom, a professor of clinical neuroscience who describes himself as a ‘smell researcher’ at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, said because snow’s smell reflects the impurities in the air, the flakes in Wisconsin smell different from snow in Sweden, and from snow in a city.” And given the astounding range of human capabilities we concede that just possibly, if dropped off blindfolded, he could sniff the air and declare appreciatively “Ah, a Madison 2021, south side”.

Even Lundstrom admits that “the cold and dry air of winter makes for a ‘poor odor environment’” which is how scientists say “Ah cain’t smell nuthin’.” And why not, if wine snobs can detect grilled cherries, melted licorice or, alas, petrol, and a parfumier can detect raw ambergris, Tennessee lavender and even fleece? Although apparently with snow it’s mostly bad news. Instead of mint or something “‘decaying biological material creates the chemical geosmin, a chemical we are so sensitive to [it’s the odor of mold] so that if you take one drop and put that in an Olympic-size swimming pool and stir the water well, you can still smell the odor,’ he [Lundstrom] said. ‘In other words, it often does not take much pollution for us being able to smell it.’”

Of course where climate change is concerned, you knew it would be pollution. Everything is, including CO2. The piece cites “Parisa A. Ariya, a chemist and chair of the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department at McGill University” (hooray, a Canadian angle, and why not, given what Voltaire said of our beautiful land), who says “As the ground and air get warmer, that encourages the circulation — and intensity — of the odor molecules.” Just not in a good way. “In 2017, she helped conduct a study looking at how snow absorbs the pollution from gasoline engine exhaust, which could then contaminate the water and soil on the ground as it melts. Yuck.

It gets worse. “Climate change is also affecting the amount of snow that the United States receives. Nationally, the contiguous United States has warmed 1.7 degrees since the 1901-1930 period, when climate normals were first calculated, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That means it’s getting wetter, but not snowier, with 80 percent of weather stations seeing a decrease in snow, according to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis.” And what hangs about, damp and dismal, is contaminated. Bleah.

It’s not all bad news. According to Lundstrom, the snow at his cabin in Bjurstrask, a tongue-twister just south of the Arctic Circle, smells “extremely clean” unlike the gunk in Solna or Philadelphia. And ice can also have a bouquet, for instance the stuff you forgot in the fridge which “smells odd and musty, as it has absorbed food odors.’ Bleah again. “But ice can also carry fragrances that invoke happy memories. When Lundstrom was 4 years old, growing up in Sweden, he would go ice fishing with his father and grandfather. He distinctly remembers the smell of the ice shavings as they drilled a hole for perch and pike” which involved reindeer fur. Speaking of smells.

Anyway, the piece goes on for a while including some parfumier trying to make a fragrance reminiscent of snow, which was a challenge until a friend said it had to include dust. We are not making this up. He won “both male and female fragrance of the year in 2000” and later “created an art installation based on the smell of snow” involving “pale blue balls of felted wool”. And why not?

To be honest, the story did get kind of fun. But the lethal stink of snow got lost in the quirky narrative. Besides, Anthony Watts made himself a skunk at the garden party with a tart observation that “Both The Washington Post and the researchers listed in the article fail to provide any evidence whatsoever that snow smells different than it did 30 years ago. They can’t, because no such data exists from 30 years ago. Further, smell is not a standardized thing that can be reliably measured.” He adds “Sadly, this is the state of science and journalism today, where facts are lacking, and virtually anything goes when it includes climate change as a factor. The result? A snowjob on the readers.” But put aside such carping.

It’s due to climate change, so it’s bad. The science is settled.

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