You've seen it and you've certainly heard it, but have you smelled it? Strange as it may sound, lightning has a smell — and you've probably experienced it while doing laundry.
When lightning strikes, the air it passes through is heated to 50,000 degrees! That's five times hotter than the surface of the sun.
The air expands rapidly, producing a sonic boom that we hear as thunder. But the sizzling temperatures also spark a chemical reaction, splitting nitrogen and oxygen molecules up and allowing some to recombine as O3, or ozone.
Ozone is good up high, but bad nearby. In other words, it's not good for humans to breathe in. Part of that "fresh" smell that arrives ahead of a summertime thunderstorm is ozone produced by the storm's lightning; the rest of the smell is petrichor, a word that describes the pleasant aroma that accompanies a rain shower.
Some of the scent comes from gases expelled by plants when water enters their pores, or stomata. When you fold laundry, you may notice static sparks leaping between garments. Pay close attention and you'll likely perceive a minute smell afterward. That's the ozone.
The human nose is extremely sensitive to ozone. We can smell it in concentrations as low as ten parts per billion. That's the equivalent of three teaspoons of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
So, if you were on the National Mall when lightning struck the Washington Monument this weekend, you might have been able to smell it!
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