Farmers have always paid attention to the weather. Quite easy to understand why.

Indiana grows a lot of corn and soybeans – more than 5 million acres each last year. That many crops get too much water and nutrients for farmers to get their best yields.

Storms can help, bringing rain to irrigate the state’s agricultural fields. However, those storms can have an added benefit to the Indiana crop: They can also help provide some of the nutrients that the fields so desperately need.

For this part of The Scrub Hub, we will answer the questions: How do storms, and more specifically lightning strikes, help fertilize Indiana corn and soybeans? We spoke with an expert to bring you answers. Keep reading to learn what they said.

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Short answer

More than three-quarters of the earth’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, one of the main nutrients plants need to grow. But nitrogen in the air is not available to plants in the form it is, so fertilizers are often used to introduce nitrogen into the soil.

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However, there is a natural way to do this: Lightning.

In simple words, a lightning strike transforms that unavailable nitrogen into the atmosphere into something that can help plants grow. This process is called nitrogen fixation and is like a laboratory experiment that takes place in the air.

Natural atmospheric nitrogen is seriously stable, according to Jeffrey Volenec, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University. It usually needs an extraordinary amount of heat or pressure, sometimes both, to break it down into a usable form, he said.

Lightning illuminates the sky as a strong storm rolls over in Indianapolis, Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

The heat and electricity around a lightning bolt are strong enough to do the job, breaking the bonds of those nitrogen molecules. When this happens, the nitrogen atoms look for something to capture, often forming a new bond with oxygen, one of the other gases most prevalent in the air. This forms nitrogen dioxide.

That new molecule disperses in cloud water and travels down to earth through raindrops, Volenec said. There it penetrates the soil and nitrates can be absorbed by plants – nature’s way of fertilizing.