Electrifying! Arctic lightning jumped from 18,000 to over 150,000 in a decade

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A combined team of researchers from the University of Washington and the University of Otago has found that lightning strikes in the Arctic have been rising dramatically over the past decade.

arctic lightning increasing, Arctic lightning jumped from 18,000 to over 150,000 between 2010 and 2020
Arctic lightning jumped from 18,000 to over 150,000 between 2010 and 2020. Picture: Ivan Kmit

Lightning is much less common in colder parts of the planet as the chill is less conducive to the humidity required for electrically charging ice crystals in clouds.

In this new effort, the researchers found that for one cold region, the number of lightning strikes has been increasing dramatically.

The work began as team members in Washington began noticing more lightning strikes in Arctic regions. That led to a more in-depth study, one focused on comparing the number of lightning strikes in northern parts of Canada, Siberia, Alaska and the Arctic Ocean, or basically, anything above 65 degrees latitude. They focused their efforts on summing the number of strikes in the Arctic region for the years 2010 to 2020.

Data, mainly for the summer months, showed the average number of lightning strikes in a given year for the entire region rose from approximately 18,000 to over 150,000.

Worried that the massive increase might be due to improvements in technology, the researchers adjusted for sensor differences and compared what they found with lightning strikes in other parts of the world over the same time period. The results remained the same.

But the comparison showed that lightning strikes in the Arctic, once accounting for 0.2% of all lightning strikes across the planet in 2010, accounted for 0.6% in 2020.

The researchers conclude that rising temperatures in the Arctic seem to favour the formation of convective storm clouds. When ice crystals in such clouds collide, making the crystals electrically charged, lightning can occur.

WOW! Lightning is striking the high north nearly ten times as often as it did a decade ago! This may also explain the increasing wildfires in the Arctic… [Phys, AGU, Nature]

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