Lightning Strikes Will More Than Double in Arctic As Climate Warms, Driving Increased Wildfires and Warming

Lightning in Clouds

University of California, Irvine-led team reports that an increase in lightning will drive both wildfires and warming above Arctic Circle.

In 2019, the National Weather Service in Alaska reported spotting the first-known lightning strikes within 300 miles of the North Pole. Lightning strikes are almost unheard of above the Arctic Circle, but scientists led by researchers at the University of California, Irvine have published new research in the journal Nature Climate Change detailing how Arctic lightning strikes stand to increase by about 100 percent over northern lands by the end of the century as the climate continues warming.

“We projected how lightning in high-latitude boreal forests and Arctic tundra regions will change across North America and Eurasia,” said Yang Chen, a research scientist in the UCI Department of Earth System Science who led the new work. “The size of the lightning response surprised us because expected changes at mid-latitudes are much smaller.”

The finding offers a glimpse into the changes that are in store for the Arctic as the planet continues warming; it suggests Arctic weather reports during summertime will be closer to those seen today far to the south, where lightning storms are more common.

James Randerson, a professor in UCI’s Department of Earth System Science who co-authored the study, was part of a NASA-led field campaign that studied wildfire occurrence in Alaska during 2015, which was a extreme year for wildfires in the state. “2015 was an exceptional fire year because of a record number of fire starts,” Randerson said. “One thing that got us thinking was that lightning was responsible for the record-breaking number of fires.”

This led Chen to look at over-twenty-year-old NASA satellite data on lighting strikes in northern regions, and construct a relationship between the flash rate and climatic factors. By using future climate projections from multiple models used by the United Nations, the team estimated a significant increase in lightning strikes as a result of increases in atmospheric convection and more intense thunderstorms.

A lightning strike bump could open a Pandora’s box of related troubles. Fires, Randerson explained, burn away short grasses, mosses, and shrubs that are important components of Arctic tundra ecosystems. Such plants cover much of the landscape, and one thing they do is keep the seeds of trees from taking root in the soil. After a fire burns away low-lying plants, however, seeds from trees can more easily grow on bare soil, allowing forests stands to expand north. Evergreen forests will replace what’s typically a snow-covered landscape; snow’s white hue reflects sunlight back out into space, but darker forests absorb solar energy, helping warm the region even further.

And there’s more trouble: more fires mean more permafrost — perennially frozen soil that defines much of the Arctic landscape — will melt as the fires strip away protective insulative layers of moss and dead organic matter that keep soils cool. Permafrost stores a lot of organic carbon that, if melted out of the ice, will convert to greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane, which, when released, will drive even more warming.

The lighting finding comes of the heels of another study that, led by Randerson, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research on Monday, April 5 describes how amplified Arctic warming and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet will scramble food webs in the surrounding oceans.

Now, Chen and Randerson say, scientists need to start paying more attention to the frequency of Arctic lightning strikes so they can gauge how the story unfolds in the coming decades.

“This phenomenon is very sporadic, and it’s very difficult to measure accurately over long time periods,” said Randerson. “It’s so rare to have lightning above the Arctic Circle.” Their results, he hopes, will galvanize calls for new satellite missions that can monitor Arctic and boreal latitudes for lightning strikes and the fires they might ignite.

Back in 2019, the National Weather Service in Alaska released a special announcement about the North Pole lightning strikes. Such announcements, however, may struggle to make headlines by the end of the century.

Reference: “Future increases in Arctic lightning and fire risk for permafrost carbon” by Yang Chen, David M. Romps, Jacob T. Seeley, Sander Veraverbeke, William J. Riley, Zelalem A. Mekonnen and James T. Randerson, 5 April 2021, Nature Climate Change.
DOI: 10.1038/s41558-021-01011-y

This work, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, NASA’s Interdisciplinary Science and Carbon Monitoring System programs, and DOE’s Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment Arctic project, includes researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Harvard University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

3 Comments on "Lightning Strikes Will More Than Double in Arctic As Climate Warms, Driving Increased Wildfires and Warming"

  1. Clyde Spencer | April 6, 2021 at 5:06 pm | Reply

    “After a fire burns away low-lying plants, however, seeds from trees can more easily grow on bare soil, allowing forests stands to expand north. Evergreen forests will replace what’s typically a snow-covered landscape;”

    The tundra is NOT typically covered by snow in the Summer, when the sun is above the Arctic Circle! There is no sun in the Winter when there is snow!

    “… more fires mean more permafrost … will melt as the fires strip away protective insulative layers of moss and dead organic matter that keep soils cool.”

    But, compensating for the missing insulative cover will be the tree canopies shading the ground, helping to keep them cool!

    This alarm is based primarily on unverified models. Models, particularly first-generation models, make a lot of assumptions. In this case, the description of their major variables suggests that they have overlooked some important parameters. Models are only as good as the assumptions and data that go into making them. I doubt that they have good data for the tradeoffs in the insulative versus shading parameters.

    Based on current rates of Greenland glacier melting, it will take about 15,000 years to melt the glacier. It is problematic whether we will still be around, or whether some other problem will dominate our concerns, if we are.

    Thank God that the Manhattan Project had real scientists working on The Bomb, instead of wanna-be scientists. Otherwise, we would all be speaking German.

  2. It’s time to invent megacapacitors that can store the energy of lightning strikes. Then we can locate collection points (lightning rods) in high places inside the forest, and collect lightning to charge the megacaps. The stored electricity can then be changed to AC and then metered into the grid, and we will have solved one of our major problems–the generation of electricity without the use of fossil duels, or mega dams and their land consuming reservoirs, and the control of forest fire starts by diverting lightning strikes from trees to lightning rods instead. Imagine I’m a dreamer? Well, I’m not the only one!(John Lennon)

    • Clyde Spencer | April 7, 2021 at 11:37 am | Reply

      Ken,
      I had the idea years ago to put lightning strikes to good use. While the voltage and current are very high, the amount of time that the power is available is extremely small. I did the calculations, and even for hot spots like Florida, the amount of usable power would not pay for the construction of the towers, ‘megacapacitors,’ inverters, and distribution lines.

      If it was practical, Tesla probably would have built such a thing.

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