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Why You Might Be Able To 'Smell' Snow Coming

Jenni Wade

Snow is expected east of the Cascades this week. But some people say they don't need forecasters to tell them that -- they claim to be able to "smell" when snow coming. Enough people in the Northwest say this, but is there a scientific explanation?

Laura Munson is a writer living in northwest Montana. She swears she can tell when it's going to snow -- even if people don't believe her.

"I can remember this time of hanging out with this group of people. And I said that I felt like it was going to snow. I felt like I could smell snow coming. And sure enough, the next morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was white."

So was it a lucky guess, or is it really possible that we can smell snow in the air?

I put that question to Johan Lundström. He's a smell and taste researcher in Philadelphia. Lundström also grew up in snowy northern Sweden.

"No," he says. "We can't smell the weather, just as little as we can smell someone's thoughts."

But that's not the end of the story. Lundström says changes in the weather can alter our ability to smell. In winter, the mucus layer around our olfactory receptors dries up. It loosens when humidity rises, like before a snow storm.

"If you're outside during this transition, I would predict that your sense of smell would actually become more acute. So it could be we learn to associate this change with an oncoming snow weather."

Once the snow is here, he says then the nose may pick up smells. Even water, Lundström says, is known to hold odors.

On the Web:

Monell Chemical Senses Center

Author Laura Munson

Essay: "The Smell of Snow," by Laura Munson

Video: Lorelai smells snow on "Gilmore Girls"