Global warming increases the frequency of lightning strikes: study

According to one study, global warming may cause more lightning incidents, as every increase in surface temperature of 1 degree Celsius can lead to an increase in lightning frequency of 12%.

A study by Murari Lal, a climate change expert at RMSI, a global leader in geospatial and engineering solutions, speaks of a 20-40% increase in average lightning density over the Indian subcontinent for a similar increase of the temperature. The study recommends having a system in place where warnings can be issued to help reduce lightning fatalities.

Lal’s study showed that over the past decade, lightning-related fatalities have increased across the country except for northwest India. About 57% of the lightning occurred during the monsoon season from June to September, followed by 31% during the pre-monsoon or summer season (March to May). In 2020, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha reported 53% of the total lightning-associated fatalities. More men than women have lost their lives due to lightning. About 80% of all livestock deaths are related to lightning, according to the study.

Lal, in the study, pointed out how, over the past few decades, the increase in temperature has led to greater ingress of moisture over the Indian landmass and, consequently, the frequency and severity of thunderstorms and intense flashes showed a sharp increase. Deaths from lightning have also increased, he showed.

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Lightning, an atmospheric phenomenon, is a massive discharge of electricity and is the cause of many deaths each year. Lightning can occur cloud to cloud where two oppositely charged clouds discharge electricity without touching the ground. However, when electrical charge is discharged from the cloud to the ground, it gives rise to what is known as ground lightning. Given the intensity of the electrical discharge involved, lightning heats the air up to several thousand degrees Celsius and can cause great destruction to life and property. A single lightning bolt can have up to 300 million amps of charge. Worldwide, lightning is considered a major natural disaster causing 2,500 deaths each year.

An early warning system to predict lightning in India, Lal said, must be developed to avoid large-scale fatalities. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has started providing lightning early warning forecasts via SMS in 16 states from 2021. The scope of the project is to be expanded to cover all of India. By observing the impact of lightning in clouds, Lal said, it is possible to predict lightning 30 to 40 minutes before it hits the ground.

Teresa H. Sadler