I don’t know what it is, but I love falling asleep to the sound of a thunderstorm. Not the violent storms mind you! Those can be quite scary and I prefer not having to hunker down in the basement! No, I’m talking about the ordinary, “garden-variety” thunderstorms. There’s just something about laying there listening to the steady patter of rain as it hits the ground, then seeing a blue-white flash of light brighten the sky and you count the seconds until you hear the thunder rumble, that I find soothing.
But why do we have thunderstorms? What’s the matter with just rain?
Everybody knows that plants need water to survive, but did you know that they also need nitrogen? In fact, we all do. ALL living organisms need it to survive. It’s an important part of proteins and amino acids. We get it from eating plants, but where do plants get it?
Nitrogen makes up about 78% of our air. Unfortunately, it is in gas form. Plants need it in mineral form, but that is not as abundant. In order for plants to use nitrogen, it first must be converted by a process called nitrogen fixation.
nitrogen fixation: The process of chemically converting nitrogen gas (N2) from the air into compounds such as nitrates (NO3–) or ammonia (NH3) that can be used by plants in building amino acids and other nitrogen-containing organic molecules.*
Plants that are a part of the legume family, such as clover, beans and peas, are able to fix nitrogen in this way and are important in reintroducing nitrogen to the soil where other plants can access them. Unfortunately, unlike legumes, other plants are not able to do so. And what happens if they’re not sitting next to one of their nitrogen-fixing neighbors? Here is where the thunderstorm comes in, or more importantly, lightning. Lightning is extremely hot and when it streaks across the sky, it heats up the air and causes nitrogen gas to bond with oxygen. It can then fall to the ground with rain. The nitrogen then enters the ground in mineral form, and the plants can absorb it.
That’s why plants seem to grow better after a thunderstorm versus just watering them with the hose. It’s because they literally get a charge out of thunderstorms! The next time you hear a thunderstorm, stay safe and know that not only is that storm helping the plants, but indirectly, it’s helping us!
*Bernard J. Nebel and Richard T. Wright, The Way the World Works: Environmental Science, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 679.