Why Do Some Hot Springs Smell?

Hey! What’s That Smell?

Why Do Hot Springs Smell
During the latter part of the 19th Century, many of the exclusive Hot Springs Resorts supplied guests with “Nasal Rebreathers” that were said to help eliminate the odours associated with Hot Springs. Rebreather Menus in the guests’ lodgings allowed them to pick their nose prior to “taking the waters.”
                                                                                                                  (60 Noses by Shawn Feeney)

The Answer to Why do Some Hot Springs Smell Starts Out With Mineral Soup

As you know, all that water that you are sitting and soaking in came from underground nearby. On its way through this stony planet we call home, it dissolves and collects all sorts of minerals along the way. It is many people’s belief that it is the specific mineral composition in the water that does a body good. Part of the mineral soup that the water picks up may include sulfide compounds contained in the surrounding rock. The hotter the water – the more minerals that will be able to remain dissolved in the water (remember making salt and sugar and alum crystals at school?).

In many cases, unless you are at The Source (where the water emerges from underground) there are no visual clues as to what has happened to the water deep within the earth. There may be one way to tell however – and it is just one part of all things hot springs. Now I know that you would never complain about it but I’m sure you have heard from others whose snifter sense is offended in some way by the olfactory aspect of the hot spring experience. Yes. The Hot Springs Smell.


Why Do Hot Springs Smell
This is Desulfovibrio Vulgaris that converts
some of the dissolved sulfides into hydrogen
sulfide (The Hot Springs Smell).
But it’s okay because it’s natural.

That sulfurous rotten egg sort of Hot Springs smell is actually H2S, hydrogen sulfide. Not all hot springs have it to the same extent, there are some that don’t have the hot springs smell at all. Even though we associate the smell with sulfur, in fact it is the result of a bacterium (desulfovibrio vulgaris being one sort) that feeds off of the sulfides, creating hydrogen sulfide as a by-product and thus causing the odour d’jour. Because these bacteria are anaerobic, that is they grow and multiply in the absence of oxygen, water with a strong odour usually is heated quite deep in the earth and the water progresses up to the surface relatively quickly. This rapid transit prevents too much oxygen exposure that would cause the cute little critters to expire and also dissipate the H2S and its smell.

Why Do Hot Springs Smell
Over the course of human evolutionary
development, the nose has been getting
ever smaller. There was a time when
the nose made up 45% of the total mass
of our heads.
(Photo by Michael Glasgow)

No Big Deal

Like many things, the initial exposure is often the worst. As you spend time in that environment you may stop noticing the Hot Springs smell altogether. Or at least its impact will be minimized perhaps only to be reminded when someone mentions it. We, as humans, are able to overlook such things as a minor peccadillo. It is thus with the smell of hot springs just as it is with the oil leaks of old British motorcycles.

And it is important that we have such things in our world.

Is your favorite smelling Hot Springs on our list? Check out The List here!

Please share your favorite desulfovibrio vulgaris story in the Comments section below.


Edited November 24, 2013

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