How Lightning Makes Grass Green

By Sarah Wilson,
Healthy Planet Staff Writer

That is not a typo; lightning really does help green up the grass and every other plant. To understand how we have to start with the fact that our atmosphere is mostly nitrogen. But all that nitrogen is not in a form that plants can use.

How does nature get non-available nitrogen above us into plant-available nitrogen on the earth’s surface? It starts with lightning. A LOT of lightning. And we have a lot; our world generates about 3,000,000 lightning bolts a day. 

 Each of those bolts heats up the atmosphere it passes through to 50,000 degrees (F). That’s five times hotter than the surface of the sun! That astonishing process shatters some of the atmospheric nitrogen molecules.

Nitrogen does not like breaking up. It wants to bond to something, and oxygen is a frequent choice. When that nitrogen bonds to oxygen, it creates a natural nitrate, which just happens to be the form of nitrogen that plants can readily use.

Every day, lightning creates between 10,000-13,000 tons of nitrate in the atmosphere, just waiting for someplace to go. And where does it go? It dissolves into the water droplets in clouds, ready to rain down on us all. When it does and when it soaks into the soil, plant roots feast on it. And that’s why plants green up after a good rain. It’s not just the wet; it’s the nitrates.

Knowing this makes me appreciate the importance of keeping rainwater safely and thoughtfully on our properties for as long as possible. The more it can soak into our gardens and around our trees, the more it can naturally fertilize the plants we tend. 

Bonus bit of wonder: during droughts, nitrates build up in the atmosphere so that when rains finally arrive, each drop packs extra food for those dry, stressed plants.

Nature is amazing.