Field of Science

Nitrogen in the snow

We are expecting another round of wintry weather tomorrow, and an article in the local paper noted that the snow and bitingly cold weather we have had recently are good for farmers.  The cold reduces the population of some pests, particularly the species making their way north.  The article also noted that snow contains nitrogen from the atmosphere, providing a little extra boost for lawns come spring.

The atmosphere is roughly 80% nitrogen, in the form of N2.  The form matters.  Nitrogen gas is very unreactive, so much so that it many "air sensitive" materials are packed under pure nitrogen.  (The part of the air that is reactive is molecular oxygen, O2.)  Snow certainly contains dissolved nitrogen gas.  Henry's law predicts the solubility of a gas in a solvent, water in this case, as a function of temperature.  It might seem at first glance counter intuitive, but gases are more soluble in cold solvents than in warm (the opposite is true of most solids, as anyone who has tried to dissolve sugar in cold ice tea knows).  An inch of snow contains about 7 milligrams of nitrogen gas per square foot, or about 1/3 of a kilogram in an acre of snow.  Given that fertilizers are spread onto fields at a field of roughly 300 kilograms per acre, it's not much.

The trouble is actually that this nitrogen isn't in a form that easily accessible to plants.  Nitrogen in the atmosphere must first be "fixed" or changed into a more reactive form, typically tetravalent nitrogen (ammonium) which is then converted to the nitrate ions that plants can use.  So where does the useful sort of nitrogen come from?

Industrially, nitrogen is fixed in the Haber process.  Since nitrogen is so unreactive, this requires pressures hundreds of times those of earth's atmosphere and temperatures more likely to be found on the surface of Venus (over 700oF).  Nitrogen is fixed in the biosphere by microbes, which undertake an elaborate enzymatic dance to do this at low temperatures and pressures (and yes, scientists are on the job of trying to figure out how to get the enzymatic processes to work at industrial scales.)

Lightening strikes also convert minuscule amounts of N2 in the atmosphere to nitrogen oxides, and industrial pollution has also injected nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. Industrial pollutants are by far the biggest contributors. The nitrogen oxides become nitrate ions. These are the nitrogen sources that turn a blanket of snow into a gentle fertilizer.

To put it into perspective, snow and rain probably deposit about 5 kilograms total per acre over a year. It's not much, it's not quite all natural (the rates were much lower in pre-industrial days), but it's something.