Story at a glance
- Lightning in the Arctic has historically been a rare event, as it requires a mixture of cold air, warm air and convective instability.
- Starting in 2019, scientists recorded the furthest north lightning on record, roughly 32 miles from the North Pole
- Scientists found that the increased number of lightning strikes between 2010 and 2020 seemed to correlate with global temperature anomalies.
Climate change has been linked to various severe weather events, from wildfires to hurricanes, and now scientists have found it may also be causing lightning to develop in the Arctic.
Lightning in the Arctic has historically been a rare event, as it requires a mixture of cold air, warm air and convective instability, but as the Arctic has experienced unprecedented warming temperatures, lightning strikes have started occurring much more frequently. Scientists at Vaisala, a Finnish environmental firm, found that in 2021 there was 91 percent more lightning detected at the highest latitudes of the planet, where the North Pole sits.
In a 2021 Annual Lightning Report, Vaisala noted that the World Meteorological Organization considers lightning an Essential Climate Variable, because understanding where and how frequently it happens can offer insights into climate change. Until recently, lightning that occurred at the highest latitudes in the Arctic was consistently low, but starting in 2019 scientists saw the furthest north lightning on record — roughly 32 miles from the North Pole.
Vaisala wasn’t the only one noticing the uptick in lightning occurrences in the Arctic; scientists last year published a report that found that the increased number of lightning strikes between 2010 and 2020 seemed to correlate with global temperature anomalies.
Scientists affirmed that as recent years showed strong evidence that the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than expected, causing sea ice to melt along with permafrost, reports of multiple lightning strikes had also been detected within just a few hundred miles from the North Pole.
Though the Arctic may seem far removed from most people’s daily reality, Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist for Vaisala, told The Guardian that it does actually have consequences for the rest of us in the Northern Hemisphere.
“Changes in the Arctic can mean changes in the weather at home. All weather is local, but what happens at your house depends on how the atmosphere is behaving elsewhere throughout the world. Changes to conditions in the Arctic could cause more extreme cold outbreaks, more heatwaves, or extreme changes in precipitation to Europe,” said Vagasky.
The National Fire Protection Association said in 2013 report that lightning is a major factor in wildland fires, and the average number of acres burned per fire is much higher in lightning fires than in human-caused ones. Although the National Interagency Coordination Center’s Wildland Fire Summary and Statistics annual report found that while 88 percent of wildfires are human-caused, about 55 percent of the average acreage burned from 2016 to 2020 was ignited by lightning.
Other scientists predict lightning is on a path to continue to increase, with a 2014 report saying that lightning strikes will increase by about 12 percent for every degree of rise in global average air temperature. The Arctic will also be victim to those temperature increases and therefore more lightning strikes, too.
“Scientists can’t tie a lightning strike from one day to the changes in our climate, but monitoring trends of lightning in the Arctic is especially important and something that will need to be studied now and in the future,” said Vagasky to the Guardian.
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