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Temperature and Lightning

Updated: 3 days ago

Why rising temperatures mean more strikes, wildfires, and home damage.

We've all been reading story after story about hurricanes coming earlier in the season, tornados hitting previously safe communities, and increased flooding resulting from torrential downpours—all linked to the steady warming of the planet.

While these events are major destructive forces, little attention has been given to how lightning might change as temperatures rise. So far in 2024, in the U.S., 25 people have been killed, and more than half of the wildfires started by lightning strikes.

Scientists studying the effects of global warming estimate an increase in lightning to be anywhere from 5 to 100 percent per degree Celsius (2° F). A new study issued last winter by David Romps with the University of California, Berkeley, however, used several factors, including greenhouse gas concentrations, convection levels, wind patterns, and strike data, to conclude that lightning will increase 12% per every degree Celsius rise in global temperatures. This will increase to 50% by the end of the century.

Higher Levels Mean Stronger Storms

Warmer temperatures mean more moisture in the air. More humidity means more storm activity. More storm activity means more lightning strikes. You can see how this adds up with these maps developed by Romps which show that the number of lightning strikes is much higher in the parts of the U.S. most associated with humid, hot weather.

Each year, there are 20 million lightning strikes in the United States. With a 50% rise in lightning strikes predicted by the end of the century, Future generations can expect to see some 30 million strikes per year over the continental U.S.

Globally, lightning hits the ground 100 times every second. That's 8 million strikes a day. A startling figure. If strikes globally increase 50% by the end of the century, the world will experience 12 million strikes every day.

Why it Matters

In the past, 28 Americans have been killed each year by lightning. As 25 have already died in 2024, this year will likely far surpass this average. Globally, lightning kills 250,000 each year. That number is set to increase exponentially as well.

Insurance pays about $1 billion in claims for damages caused by lightning each year. By the end of the century, that figure is expected to double.

Four million acres of land burn each year in lightning-caused wildfires. Experts say that figure will probably more than double by the end of the century.

Intense wildfires generate their own weather systems, complete with hurricane-force winds and bolts of lightning. This results in greater loss of life and property, costing thousands their homes and way of life.

In the book Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant, the author looks at the mega-fire in Alberta, Canada, in 2016 and several other wildfires that attained heroic size in the last 30 years. He cites the effect that the Boreal and Acadian forest fires have had on the earth's ability to process carbon dioxide and how our treatment of these issues will impact future generations. What ties all of these fires together has been their cause - lightning.

In Virginia, wildfires haven't been a major concern, but your home is susceptible to damage even if lightning doesn't strike it directly. Your home can be damaged through strikes that affect invisible fences, water pipes, electrical sources, and more. For more insight on your home's vulnerability and how you can protect it, read our post "Lightning Doesn't Have To Strike Your House to Cause Serious Damage."

So if you are outdoors and a storm seems imminent, chances are you'll see more flashes and hear more thunder than you may remember from storms of the past. Always remember the quaint saying, "When thunder roars, go indoors," and stay safe. The figures are climbing.



Sources: Climate Central, Fire Weather, NY Times, Colorado State University



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