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We got lots of Nitrates!

Posted by Daniel Hallas on August 12, 2014, 4:49 am

With all the lightning we had last evening we got a good dose of them!

From Earth from Space (at the 1 hr 24 minute mark).

So what other secrets of life can satellites, our eyes in space, reveal? It turns out that another surprising way life is sustained is through a violent force: lightning.

From orbit, the whole earth buzzes with electricity. Astronauts are often amazed by the intensity of the electrical storms raging far beneath them.

PIERS SELLERS:You can see a thousand milesí worth of lightning flashes, left and right, as youíre looking down, and they seem to set each other off, like fireworks: bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Itís really quite amazing.

NARRATOR: But to understand lightningís global impact we need more than just observation. NASAís T.R.M.M. satellite carries a high-speed camera that can detect individual lightning bolts. From this information, itís possible to build a picture showing the distribution of lightning all across the globe. Astonishingly, 40 strikes occur every second. Thatís more than 3,000,000 strikes a day.

So how is all this lightning created? And what is the effect of all this energy streaking through the earthís atmosphere?

Each day, the combined force of sunlight and water vapor creates 40,000 thunderclouds. The rising columns of moist air generate powerful updrafts that turn water vapor into ice particles inside the clouds. As ice and water droplets smash into each other, at great speed, vast charges of static electricity build up. An average thundercloud contains enough energy to power a city the size of Denver for 10 hours. Eventually, the charge builds to a point where air molecules are torn apart and a lightning bolt is born.

A bolt is no thicker than a human thumb, yet itís five times the temperature of the surface of the sun. As it burns through the atmosphere, the electricity breaks apart the molecules of nitrogen contained in the air.

DAVID ADAMEC:A lightning stroke, it actually splits the nitrogen into single nitrogen molecules. Nitrogen doesnít like that. Itís desperately looking for something to connect back to with, and it often does it with oxygen.

NARRATOR: When oxygen bonds with the nitrogen, it creates a vital nutrient called nitrate. Satellites show the extent of nitrate, simulated here, in yellow, produced by the more than 3,000,000 lightning bolts that strike every day. This creates about 13,000 tons of nitrate. It dissolves into water droplets in the clouds and falls to the ground, in rain.

DAVID ADAMEC:Most people are familiar with nitrates because theyíre fertilizers. So when it rains, in a thunderstorm, in a way, youíre getting a free fertilizing, because the water will have nitrates in it.

NARRATOR: Nitrate is absorbed through the roots of plants and enters the food chain. When we eat these plants, the nitrates become available to us. And so, this vital nutrient enters the cells of every living organism on Earth, where it is critical for building the structure of plants and helps make proteins and D.N.A. in our bodies, as well. It is essential for the survival of all living things.


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