Lightning in the Arctic?

By: Tova Shmulewitz  |  April 28, 2021

By Tova Shmulewitz, Staff Writer

When thinking of the Arctic, the first thing that comes to mind is the North Pole; also known as the home of Santa Claus or a winter wonderland. What definitely does not come to mind is lightning strikes or thunderstorms. This is because thunderstorms and lightning occur when the updraft of air from the ground is warmer than the cool air higher up. In areas with a lot of ice coverage, including the Arctic, it is highly unlikely that the updraft of air from the ground is warmer than the cool air from above, resulting in fewer thunder and lightning storms. 

Over the last decade, however, there has been a spike of lightning storms throughout the Arctic. It has been found that the amount of lightning strikes has tripled in the past decade, a massive increase from around 18,000 in 2010 to about 150,000 in 2020. There have even been lightning strikes reported near the North Pole.

The suspected culprit of these abnormal lighting strikes is climate change. The Arctic has been experiencing one of the largest increases in temperature on the planet over the past few years, which has, in turn, created proper conditions for thunderstorms to take place. Studies have shown that the surge of temperature in the Arctic over the past decade correlates to the increase in lightning strike occurrences over the same period of time. As the temperature of the region increases, so does the likelihood of thunder and lightning storms to occur.

One issue with this uptick in lightning occurrences in this region is that northern parts of Canada and Siberia are both densely populated with trees. This means that they are more susceptible to wildfires if hit by lightning. The more chance of lighting, the more likely it becomes that wildfires happen in these areas. As shown through the recent wildfires in California, forest fires are extremely dangerous and harmful, not just for the immediate areas, but the environment as a whole. In addition to the human impact on the environment, wildfires, too, are a contributing factor in the increase of global temperature.

This creates a concerning cycle. As the temperature in the Arctic increases, due to human-caused climate change, the instances of lightning strikes increase as well. And as lightning strikes increase, as do wildfires in the region, which emit pollutants to the atmosphere adding to the acceleration of climate change, further warming the world. And the cycle continues. 

It is important to note that climate change is not the proven reason for the increase in lightning strikes, but it is a very plausible explanation based on the data. 

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