1,697 people killed in India after being struck by lightning between March 2020 and April 2021.
Lightning strikes kill more people than cyclones, earthquakes and floods every year. As the Earth heats up, the number of extreme weather events like heat waves and thunderstorms are also increasing. Warming adds to moisture levels in the atmosphere not just in coastal areas but also the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Lightning’s interconnectedness with thunderstorms and precipitation makes it a direct indicator of ‘storminess’. This helps us observe changes in the global climate. Because of increased moisture levels, the number of cyclones have now multiplied. The last decade saw 33 cyclones in the Indian subcontinent, among the highest in over 5 decades.
Naturally, when thunderstorms or cyclones increase, so does lightning. Lightning is part of what we call a convective storm system. It means that superficial heating of the Earth leads to upward atmospheric movement vertically transporting all the moisture in the air.
After a cloud is formed, friction between ice crystals within them leads to an exchange of electrical charges. When the bottom of a cloud becomes too overloaded with negative charges, electricity courses towards a positively-charged region on the Earth. In other words, we get struck by lightning. Since lightning is the first indicator of a storm, an increase in lightning strikes leads us back to increasing global temperatures, clearly reflecting the climate crisis we are living with today.
Compared to the last year, the areas vulnerable to strikes in India have increased significantly in 2020-21, a rise of 34% nationally. This puts our long coastline at a lot of risk, which includes Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and hilly regions of the North-East.
In Uttarakhand, the forest fires that are increasing every year also add to the number of lightning strikes that the state witnesses. In 2018 the sky ‘sliced open’ in Brazil. A single lightning bolt stretched for 700 kilometres, from the Atlantic coast to Argentina. The Arctic region, where this phenomenon should have been rare, is also witnessing more lightning strikes than ever before. Strikes have increased by about 8 times in 10 years, from 18,000 in 2010 to 1,50,000 in 2020.
During the recent heat wave in Canada, when the heat waves caused wildfires, the smoke released from them formed clouds. These clouds caused more lightning strikes which reignited fires. This was a dangerous loop that lasted for much longer than expected lightning struck over 7,10,117 (seven hundred thousand times) times in one night.
Lightning strikes don’t happen in isolation. They’re a result of many climatic factors that have accelerated because of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. So unless we work towards the net zero carbon emissions goal, controlling adverse effects of natural disasters is going to be next to impossible.