Climate Change

What caused 41,000 lightning strikes across India on April 16?

Lightning strikes kill more people in India than any other extreme weather event but they go largely unnoticed

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Thursday 18 April 2019

On April 16, there were almost 41,000 clouds to ground (CG) lightning strikes all over India, according to data analysed by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune.

The strikes were a result of thunder, dust and hail storms across the country. These were caused by an intense Western Disturbance (WD), which started affecting the North Western parts of the country from April 15 onwards.

The cooler winds of the WD interacted with hot and dry air and further infused localised storms in many regions resulting in extreme weather conditions.

“It is a severe weather system covering a large spatial extent, so much so, that its affect was felt all the way in Maharashtra. It is the most intense western disturbance reported since January this year,” M Rajeevan, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences told the media.

“We do not think it was the strongest WD. Although it was intense but, other factors such as, high temperatures, induced cyclonic circulation over west Rajasthan and moisture feed from Arabian Sea was responsible for violent dust storms and thunders showers,” Mahesh Palawat, chief meteorologist at Skymet Weather, a private weather monitoring agency, told Down to Earth.

According to media reports, 89 people in 11 states have been killed in such storms since the beginning of April, mainly due to CG lightning strikes. In Rajasthan alone 25 individuals died in a single day on April 16.

In Madhya Pradesh, over two days, 16 people have reportedly died. Lightning strikes kill more people in India than any other extreme weather event but they go largely unnoticed as compared to floods, heat waves and cold waves.

In 2018, over 3,000 people died due to lightning strikes in the country. “The number of deaths resulting from lightning strikes has increased by 1000 over the past three years,” Sanjay Srivastava of the Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council (CROPC) told Down to Earth.

CROPC is a consortium of various organisations and individuals working on risk reduction due to extreme weather events, like lightning. “Lightning strikes are on the rise as the frequency and intensity of storms and cyclones increase as a result of climate change,” added Srivastava.  

Last year, Andhra Pradesh had recorded 41,000 lightning strikes on a single day in May, according to Earth Networks, a Maryland-based company which monitors and collects data on lightning strikes around the world.

These strikes had killed 14 people at the time. The number could have been higher if not for a public information dissemination system managed by the Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) which sent out alerts to people about impending lightning strikes through phone messages.

A network of sensors located around the world by Earth Networks measure radio frequencies emitted during lightning strikes. This data is combined to produce a time, location, type (cloud-to-ground or intra-cloud), and peak current using a time-of-arrival technique similar to the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Whenever electromagnetic activity characteristic of a lightning strike is detected, a local disaster response team is notified, which sends further alerts. In Andhra, the SDMA sends alerts on a mobile application — Vajrapath — developed by Kuppam Engineering College students in Chittoor in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation.

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