Increased lightning strikes in the Arctic | Polarjournal
Lightning in the Arctic could become commonplace in the future. (Photo: RTL Interactive)

The Arctic offers many attractions, be it the landscape, but also flora and fauna. Again and again the auroras zapping in the night sky fascinate people. These have now been given a rival. A new phenomenon could spread across the skies of the Arctic in the future. Lightning is relatively rare in the Arctic, it has tripled in the last decade and climate change may be to blame.

Polar lights have always fascinated people, like these on Svalbard. (Photo: Marcel Schütz, Spitsbergen)

Meteorologists were surprised to find out that a summer storm had triggered a lightning strike just 32 miles from the North Pole on August 13, 2019. Never before has been a lightning strike recorded so close to the North Pole. To properly register the event, the lightning strike was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records.

A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters analyzed data on lightning collected by a sensor network known as the World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN). When lightning strikes, it emits a short burst of low-frequency radio waves that WWLLN sensors can then pick up and record.

An unusually strong storm formed off the coast of Alaska on August 5, 2012, and moved into the center of the Arctic Ocean, where it lasted for several days. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite captured this image on August 7, 2012. The center of the storm was in the middle of the Arctic Ocean at the time. (Foto: NASA)

Researchers led by Bob Holzworth of the University of Washington, which operates the lightning network, initially used this data to study lightning strikes during the summer months of June, July and August between 2010 and 2020 for all locations above the 65th parallel. This area includes the Arctic Ocean, most of Greenland, northern parts of Canada, and parts of Alaska and Russia. While lightnings have been fairly rare in this region until now, researchers noticed more and more lightnings in Arctic regions in 2019.

On the evening of August 10, 2019, a global weather monitoring network detected numerous lightning strikes within 300 nautical miles of the North Pole. It was by far the most numerous lightning strikes ever recorded this far north. (Photo: National Weather Service, Fairbanks)

Further investigations are necessary

While this research does not definitively prove that climate change is causing increased lightning strikes, the study does note that rapid warming in the Arctic may likely have something to do with it. The region is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, and the study’s authors noted that the increasing lightning strikes correspond closely with warmer regions of the Arctic over the past decade.

Studying the statistics showed the researchers that the number of lightning strikes in the Arctic tripled compared to global lightning strikes between 2010 and 2020.

More research may be needed to determine exactly what’s going on with Arctic storms. Nature recently reported that at least one other global lightning detection network has not recorded the same increase in Arctic lightning, although its records only go back to 2012. But when lightning is on the rise in the Arctic, it’s worth paying attention.

Heiner Kubny, Polarjournal

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