A Storm Named Stella

Here in Orange County, New York, a blizzard named Stella has us under a “Severe Alert.” A red banner scrolls across my weather app—which is one way the information that Winter Storm Stella has dropped snow on us for the last several hours and will continue for another fourteen hours or so. The other way I can learn that the storm is throwing two to four inches of snow per hour is found when I look out my windows.

I prefer the first method. The red banner is less scary.
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Superb Moon

For those aware that there is a thing called the sky, tonight will present those of us located on the continental United States with a “supermoon,” as newspaper headline writers love to call it.

The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is not a perfect circle; it varies from 221,000 miles away to just over 252,000 miles away. Tonight, it will be at perigee, or its closest point in its orbit, and that will coincide with the full moon. Thus, tonight’s full moon will appear enormous: 14% larger than the average full moon and many times brighter than average. And then the Earth’s shadow took it away in an eclipse, because that’s what the Earth does.
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Deep Underground

The lightest of rain after the driest of spells leads to the most argillaceous petrichor, which is the kind that humans smell as relief, the thought that things will start growing again.

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A 1964 article in Nature with the euphonious title, “Nature of argillaceous odour,” gave the world the not-as euphonious-sounding word, “petrichor.” In it, two researchers attempted to scientifically describe what it is we smell when we smell the world after a rain shower and to give it a name.

The two authors coined the word, “petrichor,” which I have been mispronouncing in my head since I first encountered it last year, when an article on the Huffington Post started making its social media rounds. It has a long “I,” so say it like this: “petra,” then “eye-core,” which is not how I hear it in my head, with a short “i.”
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Rain, Rain

A 1964 article in Nature with the euphonious title, “Nature of argillaceous odour,” gave the world the not-as euphonious-sounding word, “petrichor.” In it, two researchers attempted to scientifically describe what it is we smell when we smell the world after a rain shower and to give it a name.

The two authors coined the word, “petrichor,” which I have been mispronouncing in my head since I first encountered it last year, when an article on the Huffington Post started making its social media rounds. It has a long “I,” so say it like this: “petra,” then “eye-core,” which is not how I hear it in my head, with a short “i.”
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Superb Moon 2015

For those aware that there is a thing called the sky, last night presented those of us located on the continental United States with the sight of a full lunar eclipse during a full moon. It was not only a lunar eclipse during a full moon, but it was a “supermoon,” as newspaper headline writers insisted.

The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is not a perfect circle; it varies from 221,000 miles away to just over 252,000 miles away. Last night, it was at perigee, or its closest point in its orbit, and that coincided with the full moon. Thus, last night’s full moon looked enormous: 14% larger than the average full moon and many times brighter than average. And then the Earth’s shadow took it away in an eclipse, because that’s what the Earth does.
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A Rainy Day

A 1964 article in Nature with the euphonious title, “Nature of argillaceous odour,” gave the world the not-as euphonious-sounding word, “petrichor.” In it, two researchers attempted to scientifically describe what it is we smell when we smell the world after a rain shower and to give it a name.

The two authors coined the word, “petrichor,” which I have been mispronouncing in my head since I first encountered it last year, when an article on the Huffington Post started making its social media rounds. It has a long “I,” so say it like this: “petra,” then “eye-core,” which is not how I hear it in my head, with a short “i.”
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Moon Swoon June

In October, I wrote this:

The belief that there is a connection between things that happen on Earth and things that happen at around the same time in the night sky is such a seductive one that it has transcended human eras, societies, religions, and politics. Dictators and democrats alike have believed in auspicious and inauspicious times to begin initiatives or end policies. (Or lives.)
 
It is understandable that we humans would think of ourselves so non-humbly, that we would see ourselves not only as the conclusion to nature’s long, almost-eternal, statement, one that seems to have led to us, but that we would view ourselves as not merely a conclusion to nature’s statement, a period mark, but as THE conclusion, an exclamation point. To paraphrase a TV show: “We are the one who knocks.” We aren’t much, but we’re all we think about.
 
In the universal scheme of things, however, humanity’s history may not even show up as a comma in eternity’s sentences.
 
And this is just fine. Nature or the Big You Know Who Upstairs granted us a wonderful gift, life, for no reason at all, which is the definition of grace. And humans, many humans, were granted consciousness, which also was undeserved.— “‘The Way’,” October 28, 2014

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Earth Day Is Every Day

Petrichor,” a bit of nature writing, was first published January 26, 2015:

An article with the euphonious title, “Nature of argillaceous odour,” gave the world the not-as euphonious-sounding word, “petrichor.” In it, two researchers attempted to scientifically describe what it is we smell when we smell the world after a rain shower and to give it a name.

The two authors coined the word, “petrichor,” which I have been mispronouncing in my head since I first encountered it last week, when an article on the Huffington Post started making its social media rounds. It has a long “I,” so say it like this: “petra,” then “eye-core,” and not how I hear it in my head, with a short “i.”

It is one of the most familiar of smells, pungent, a little clayey, the essence of spring and summer, yet until 1964 and even more recent experiments, no one knew exactly what that smell is. In 1964 and ’65, the two researchers, one Australian and one British, wrote a pair of articles for the science journal Nature in which they outlined a theory about that post-rain odor. A hint is in their title, “argillaceous,” which simply means “things related to or having to do with clay.” (This will not stop me from saying the word the next time I eat something that I really enjoy.) Before 1964, the word “petrichor” did not exist, and writers who attempted to evoke the post-rain scent were stuck with “post-rain scent.”

Their theory, that it is a bunch of compounds that are not exposed to our olfactory equipment during any other weather condition, may strike one as being a little “Anne Elk (Miss)”-level obvious. It isn’t. In dry weather, the authors wrote, certain plants, certain trees, excrete oils that are absorbed by the more clayey soils around them. These oils help slow seed germination during dry seasons, when new plants might face a harsh start to life. During a rain shower, the soil yields up some of these oils, now no longer needed to protect seeds, along with another substance, geosmin, a waste product of certain bacteria in soil. This combination of molecules is what we smell, they wrote.

“Petro” means rock or stone (petrology). “Ichor” is the blood of the gods in Greek mythology. Thus, petrichor is quite a poetic term; if “the blood of the gods released from stone” is what Isabel Bear and Roderick Thomas were reaching for, well, that smell indeed is rare and fine to most human noses.

The results of an MIT study were released this month, further confirming some thoughts about petrichor along with some surprises. A high-speed camera was used to photograph simulated rain against different soils. The Huffington Post article has “Crazy Slo-Mo Video Explains Why Rain Has That Distinctive Smell” as its headline, which is a bit more eye-catching than the MIT news release about the study: “Rainfall can release aerosols, study finds.” The study’s authors set up 600 experiments on 28 different surfaces and discovered that raindrops “fizz” on impact. (My word, not theirs.) This was something that no one had even theorized.

The images they produced revealed a mechanism that had not previously been detected: As a raindrop hits a surface, it starts to flatten; simultaneously, tiny bubbles rise up from the surface, and through the droplet, before bursting out into the air.

This had not been seen until this year, but almost every human nose has registered it since our ancestors first encountered rain. The researchers further verified something that every human being who has stood outdoors in a light rain has noticed but never verified with “crazy slo-mo” tools of any kind: that a light rain striking clayey soils releases a lot more bubbles per raindrop. A heavy rain drowns each raindrop; a light rain, like the kind I saw in the woods out behind my house when I was a child, a light rain striking the leaves and branches of trees, further slowing their impact, that rain produces the strongest petrichor of all and is the one that renders me into an seven-year-old noticing the world for the first time.

The lightest of rain after the driest of spells leads to the most argillaceous petrichor, which is the kind that humans smell as relief, the thought that things will start growing again.

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