More On That Strange Odor Over St. Louis


On Monday I wrote about a strange stench hovering over St. Louis. The smell has been described as something akin to rotten food, body odor and/or feces. The source of the odor remains a mystery, though authorities say they've tested the air and determined it safe for breathing.

Yesterday I came across a startling explanation for the odor. A reader under the handle "Shan" commented on my post to say that mysterious odors are often a "text book scenario of pre-earthquake conditions."
Somewhat alarmed by this, I called over to Saint Louis University's Earthquake Center. The person I spoke to there had never heard of any association with strange smells and imminent seismic activity. Still, she suggested that I talk to a professor with the school's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. I'm still waiting for a return call.

In the meantime, I phoned over to Washington University, where I spoke to geochemist Robert Criss. Criss says he hasn't heard of the earth giving off odors before an earthquake -- though he doesn't totally dismiss that theory.

"It's could be the dilatancy of crack and stress on the earth," says Criss. "Think of the ground as a stick. You bend it, and before it breaks it cracks and stresses a bit. The same thing could happen with the earth before an earthquake, giving off sulfites and gas from deep underground."

That said, Criss believes there's a better explanation for the smell. Logging onto his computer, Criss quickly presents me with the wind direction and speed since the odor was first detected on Sunday. "The winds have been averaging from the northeast during that time frame at about seven miles an hour. That's unusual, in that the wind generally comes from the west."

Criss notes that there are several refineries northeast of St. Louis that could be contributing to the smell. He adds, too, that the unusually cold weather and cloudy skies could also keep the stale air lingering close to the ground.

"Without any sun there isn't much convection current to stir the air," he says. "But then, those are just my thoughts. If we have a massive earthquake in the next couple days, you'll probably want to interview another scientist." 

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