Midwinter lightning and hail

Midwinter lightning and hail damages trees, plants and electrical infrastructure but brings welcome rain and nitrogen for the soil.

Midwinter lightning strikes a tree in the front garden.

I expect you too were totally shocked by the midwinter hail storm that hit the Midlands recently. We do have short memories, and perhaps I’m totally wrong, but I don’t remember it ever happening before. We see climate change all around us, warning us of the devastation of the planet in part caused by the greenhouse gases.

Awesome was the strike of lightening that hit my favourite tree only 22 metres from where we were sitting in our lounge. Luckily our solar system and electronica were preserved from the shock wave of the powerful electric field by the proper earthing. Bits of bark from the tree were found 50 metres away. Only time will tell if it survives; it has been hit before.

It served as a stark reminder of how lightening can strike out of the blue; anyone standing out there would surely have been killed. Keep well away from trees in a storm, even one that is seemingly relatively far off. South Africa has over 200 deaths each year.

Lightening provides about 10% of the nitrogen fixed from the atmosphere[1]; the other 90% comes from the bacteria[2] on the roots of legumes. Both make inert nitrogen in the air available to plants which are then able to build the amino acids (proteins) that all life is totally dependent on. We may think we get our protein from a cow, or an egg, but both are only made possible by the protein in the fodder that they themselves consume.

A lightening strike according to Hill et al is typically about 5 km long with a current of about 25,000 amps. That is the amount used by 2,500 kettles; but of course the voltage is around a staggering one million volts. The awesome heat produced by the strike is sufficient to break down the nitrogen molecule, the atoms immediately forming oxides which then dissolve in the rain forming nitric acid, and thus the nitrates in the soil that plants can absorbe. Hence the monsoons, as my grandmother would have said whenever a subject of science came under discussion.

As gardeners we welcomed the storm, the 17mm of rain half-filled the reservoir that provides our water, and the greens and broad beans are already much happier; and also reminded of the importance of seeking shelter when a storm threatens, even in midwinter.

Just as our children will be stunted by insufficient nitrogenous protein, plants in the garden grow miserably without enough nitrogen.    

Midwinter lightning and hail

Midwinter lightning and hail in the Midlands of SA is most unusual.

  1. Bernard Preston
  2. Our green home
  3. Midwinter lightning and hail
  1. Does lightning add nitrogen to the soil?
  2. Making a compost pile


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