Spate in lightning deaths tell a shocking story - GulfToday

Spate in lightning deaths tell a shocking story

Meena Janardhan

Writer/Editor/Consultant. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of environmental journalism and publishing.


The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

Even as India grapples with floods and erratic climate change related issues, another killer has claimed nearly 1311 people in just four months from April to July. In this period, experts have recorded 6.5 million lightning strikes across India. Around 15% of these strikes were in a single state: Odisha. The highest number of casualties (224) was recorded in the state of Uttar Pradesh, followed by Bihar (170).

These figures were released recently in the ‘Mid-Monsoon Lightning Report 2019’, brought out by the Climate Resilient Observing System Promotion Council (CROPC), in collaboration with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and World Vision India, a voluntary organization.

With around 100 strikes per second, lightning bolts across the sky and hits the ground somewhere on Planet Earth around 8 million times per day. But according to a recent study as reported in the journal Science, that number could dramatically increase if the current rate of global warming continues. The study adds that we could expect to see a 12% increase in lightning activity for every 1 degree of warming.

Lightning is also hazardous; it can strike and kill people, and also trigger potentially devastating wildfires. Yet studies exploring how lightning could change with rising temperatures are few and far between. Since it is predicted that temperatures will be around 4oC higher at the end of the century, this means, for example, there could be a 50% increase in strikes in the US by 2100. This could potentially mean more human injuries and more wildfires, since around half of all wildfires are started by lightning.

In India, eight states of the North East comprising of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim –the 2.4% of geographical area of India with 3.86% of national population – falls in the most hot lightning rod zone.

The Mid-Monsoon report highlights that the majority of victims are rural (96%) which include farmers, women and children, who are vulnerable because of working in the open. Data also shows that 71% people who are struck by lightning were due to their standing under trees during rains or thunderstorms.

Calling it a direct and extreme backlash of global warming and climate change, the report adds that it needs close monitoring and proactive collective action to reduce these adverse impacts. The IMD’s now-cast gives 3 hours to 30 minutes early warning against Lightning. State governments and other stakeholders would need to take this IMD’s forecast on lightning to the community on time and thereby can reduce the losses to life, livestock, livelihood and assets substantially.

The report states that the essence of saving life from lightning lies in installation of lightning protection devices like lightning arresters/conductors of proper quality over vulnerable buildings /community centers.

Across the globe, scientists are starting to recognize that lightning has a broader story to tell. Lightning frequency is changing, as climate is changing. Fires ignited by lightning have and will likely continue to increase across the Mediterranean and temperate regions in the Southern Hemisphere under a warmer climate, according to a study published online in the journal ‘Geophysical Research Letters’. The study examined the observed and forecasted relationship between lightning-ignited fires, rising temperatures across the Southern Hemisphere and natural climate variability in three leading climate drivers that affect weather worldwide: El Niño-La Niña, the Indian Ocean Dipole and the Southern Annular Mode.

One major finding is that global warming is linked to increased natural (lightning-ignited) fire occurrence. Climate change is amplifying climate-fire teleconnections, or the strength of long-distance relationships between weather patterns and fire. During the onset of the 21st century, lightning-ignited fires were tightly coupled with upward trends in wind patterns and rising temperatures across the Southern Hemisphere.

As the climate changes, it is important to consider that not only the intensity of thunderstorms (in terms of the amount of rain or lightning they produce) could change, but also that the number of thunderstorms might increase or decrease too. Given these competing factors involved in the effect of climate change on thunderstorms and lightning, the focus should have been on observed changes in historical records. Unfortunately, from the point of view of lightning, long-term measurements (from satellites or networks of electromagnetic detectors) have only been operational for a couple of decades.

On the positive side, some studies have shown that lightning also produces compounds called nitrogen oxides, which indirectly reduce levels of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas.

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