Anything for a Headline: ‘Climate Change is Altering the Smell of Snow’

Here at Climate Realism, we’ve seen all sorts of media claims about climate change. Some are doomsday scenarios, others claim your favorite holiday food will be threatened, while others try to link nearly every weather event to their view of “climate change.” Some, like the one in a recent story in The Washington Post, are just outlandish claims with no basis in measurable reality that can be proved or disproved with a modicum of factual research.

A recent story The Washington Post story, titled, “Climate change is altering the smell of snow,” claims  snow now smells bad due to climate change.

Yes, you read that right.

The article makes some claims that could easily be described as silly. For example:

Climate change is affecting the way snow smells, said Parisa A. Ariya, a chemist and chair of the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Department at McGill University. As the ground and air get warmer, that encourages the circulation — and intensity — of the odor molecules.

When snow falls, Ariya said, it’s “a snapshot of the atmospheric process.” 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.

Note the phrase, it’s “a snapshot of the atmospheric process.”

The key word here is “snapshot.” Atmospheric processes that occur on a timescale of a winter storm event (hours) are weather events, whereas for anything in the atmosphere to have a climate component to it, it has to be a long-term change. Climate change is generally accepted to be something that is measured over a 30-year period. The National Atmospheric and Atmospheric Administration defines it as:

More formally, climate is the long-term average of temperature, precipitation, and other weather variables at a given location. Every 30 years, climate scientists calculate new averages. The normal high and low temperatures reported on your local weather forecast come from these 30-year averages.

For the claim that snow has changed its smell due to climate change to be true, it would require that a 30-year database of smell measurements to exist, so that a long-term change could be measured.

The bottom line – no such database of snow smells exists, meaning the claim about the odor of snow changing for the worse as a result of climate change is nothing more than speculation.

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. A 2013 study Variability in olfactory receptors affects human odor perception published in Science Daily says this:

Researchers have found that as much as 30 percent of the large array of human olfactory receptor differs between any two individuals. This substantial variation is in turn reflected by variability in how each person perceives odors.

In other words, significant biological differences between individuals means no two people perceive a smell as the same. Therefore, it is ludicrous to suggest that the claimed climate change affected snow over a long-term, or even short-term period can be reliably gauged by human olfactory response.

The story appears to be little more than a headline grabbing opinion piece designed to make you think that climate change affects nearly everything, but there’s absolutely no basis in fact for the claim.

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.

Anthony Watts
Anthony Watts
Anthony Watts is a senior fellow for environment and climate at The Heartland Institute. Watts has been in the weather business both in front of, and behind the camera as an on-air television meteorologist since 1978, and currently does daily radio forecasts. He has created weather graphics presentation systems for television, specialized weather instrumentation, as well as co-authored peer-reviewed papers on climate issues. He operates the most viewed website in the world on climate, the award-winning website

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