Climate Change

Global warming: Arctic lightning strikes up drastically in 2021

The North Pole saw 7,278 lightning strikes in 2021 — nearly double in the previous nine years combined  

By Susan Chacko
Published: Thursday 13 January 2022

Lightning strikes have started occurring much more frequently in the Arctic as the region experiences unprecedented warming temperatures. Scientists at Vaisala, a Finnish environmental firm, found that in 2021, 91 per cent more lightning was detected at the highest latitudes of the planet, where the North Pole sits, than the previous year.

The North Pole saw 7,278 lightning strikes in 2021 — nearly double in the previous nine years combined.

Lightning in the Arctic has historically been a rare event, as they require a mixture of cold air, warm air and convective instability. Scientists found that the increased number of lightning strikes between 2010 and 2020 seemed to correlate with global temperature anomalies.

At most latitudes in the Arctic, lightning counts have remained consistent in the last 10 years, but are trending significantly higher north of 80 degrees north. In 2019, the furthest north lightning on record was detected Global Lightning Detection Network (by GLD360), just 52 km from the North Pole, said the 2021 Annual Lightning Report published by Vaisala.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2021 Arctic Report Card said October-December 2020 was the warmest Arctic autumn on record since 1900. The average surface air temperature over the Arctic during October 2020-September 2021 was the seventh warmest on record.

The Arctic continues to warm more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe.

A research paper published in the Geophysical Research Letters Lightning in the Arctic looked at global lightning location data from 2010-2020 to show that the number of strokes in the Arctic above 65 degrees north is increasing.

The increase in the fraction of strokes in the Arctic compared to total global strokes is well correlated with the global temperature anomaly.

Dozens of lightning strikes were detected within 300 nautical miles of the North Pole in August 2019. The lightning was detected by Vaisala’s GLD360 network.

Ryan Said, a scientist with Vaisala and the inventor of the GLD360 system, said between 2012 and 2017, there was no more than one single day each summer where lightning was seen within this range, and sometimes none was detected.

In those years, the most discharges recorded in that area in a single day was six.

Arctic lightning is rare and scientists use it as a key indicator of the climate crisis as it signals warming temperatures in the predominantly frozen region.

Chris Vagasky, Vaisala’s meteorologist and lightning applications manager, said:

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.

He added that changes to conditions in the Arctic could cause more extreme cold outbreaks, more heatwaves or extreme changes in precipitation to Europe.

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