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SCV Outdoor Report: A Flash Of Lightning

By: Wendy Langhans

A lightning strike in the Mojave. Photo by Paul Levine

Last week, I was awakened just before dawn by a flash of light across my face.  As I nestled back into my pillow I heard the faint rumbling of thunder coming from the direction of the Antelope Valley.  Hmmm….thunderstorms….


I sat up in bed took a closer look outside.  Lightning can spark wildfires and “widespread and/or significant dry lightning” is one of the criteria used by the National Weather Service in Oxnard for determining a “Red Flag Day.”  Just how close were those thunderheads? 


As it turns out, they were not too close, so I went back to bed for a bit more sleep.


The next day I told my father about the lightning.  He grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin in the 1920’s and 30’s.  He told me that farmers used to refer to lightning as “poor man’s fertilizer.”  He said the farmers looked forward to thunderstorms because that meant they didn’t have to spread cow manure on the fields. 


I must confess, at first I was a bit skeptical, so I did a bit of research about it.  The nitrogen in the atmosphere exists in an inorganic form.  In order to be used by plants, it has to be “fixed” into nitrates, an organic form of nitrogen.  The energy from lightning breaks apart the atmospheric nitrogen molecules, which then combine with the oxygen in the air.  These oxides dissolve in atmospheric moisture and form nitrates.  When it rains, these nitrates are carried to the earth used by plants as fertilizer. According to the estimates I’ve read, lightning accounts for about 5 - 8 % of the total amount of nitrogen “fixed” in the biosphere.


OK, Dad.  You were right. 




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And for those of you who spent too many hours in a chemistry lab -


The energy from lightning breaks apart the atmospheric nitrogen molecules (N2), which then combine with the oxygen (O2) in the air to form 2 molecules of nitric oxide (NO).  Nitric oxide combines with oxygen (O2) to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2).  These oxides dissolve in atmospheric moisture (H2O) and form nitric and nitrous acids (HNO3 and HNO2).  These acids readily release their hydrogen to make nitrate and nitrite ions (NO3 - and NO2 -), a form that can be used by plants.




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