U.S. Lightning Strikes May Soon Increase By 50 Percent

Climate change seems to be roaring louder and clearer than ever. A new study suggests rising temperatures in the United States could lead to a 50 percent increase in lightning strikes by the end of the century. Looks like air travel is going to get a little more complicated.

Published in Science on November 14, the study analyzes predictions of precipitation and cloud buoyancy in 11 different climate models, gathering in the end that their combined effect will create more frequent electrical discharges to the ground.

“With warming, thunderstorms become more explosive,” said David Romps, an assistant professor of earth and planetary science and a faculty scientist at University of California.

“This has to do with water vapor, which is the fuel for explosive deep convection in the atmosphere. Warming causes there to be more water vapor in the atmosphere, and if you have more fuel lying around, when you get ignition, it can go big time.”

By looking at records of U.S. lightning strikes in 2011 within a computer model that anticipates future climate, Romps uncovered the combination of additional precipitation and more buoyant clouds in the following years will lead to more constant lightning. Huh? In other words:

For every degree Celsius of global warming, the percentage of lightning strikes is likely to increase by a whopping 12 percent. By the end of the century, this increase could add up to a 50 percent growth.

So what does this mean?

More lightning means the likely possibility of more human injuries (an estimated 50 people in the U.S. die each year, according to the National Weather Service), air travel issues, and wildfires, since lightning already ignites half of all wildfires in the U.S. It’s important to note that these wildfires are also the hardest to control.

According to EarthSky, increased levels of lightning would also likely generate more nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere, a compound that applies a strong control on atmospheric chemistry.

Not everyone is on board with the study’s findings though. Some scientists – like expert John Jensenius who was not directly involved in the project – argue that long-range predictions should always be viewed with a bit of skepticism.