Climate change: rising temperatures will lead to more lightning

Scientists say a 'small' increase in global temperatures could lead to significantly more thunder storms

Lightening strike over the city of Tours, central France.
(Image credit: GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP/Getty)

Climate scientists in the US have calculated that rising global temperatures will lead to a 50 per cent increase in the number of lightning strikes hitting the ground over 100 years, the BBC reports.

David Romps, of the University of California, Berkeley, said: "For every two lightning strikes in 2000, there will be three lightning strikes in 2100." But what does that mean for the planet?

Why do rising temperatures mean more lightning?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

While the exact cause of lightning is still uncertain, scientists know it happens when clouds filled with water and ice rise rapidly. It is heat that causes the clouds to soar - and the Berkeley team have developed a new way of calculating the relationship between available heat energy and storms.

How do they know how many lightning strikes there are now?

The US National Lightning Detector Network detects the electromagnetic pulse every lightning strike emits. The accuracy of the resulting data is "exquisite", says Romps, recording the position and timing of every bolt.

How much more lightning can we expect?

The team say that for every 1C rise in global temperatures, there will be an increase of 12 per cent in the frequency of lightning strikes. Between the years 2000 and 2100, therefore, they expect to see a 50 per cent rise.

How will more lightning affect us?

Half of the wildfires in the US are triggered by lightning strikes - so it is no great stretch to predict a significant rise in those. An increase in wildfires might in turn increase the rate at which the planet is warming.

What other effect might it have?

Every bolt of lightning sparks a chemical reaction which triggers a 'puff' of nitrogen oxide - one of the so-called 'greenhouse gas'. Romps says lightning is the main source of that gas in the upper and middle tropospheres.

What might more nitrogen oxide mean?

More lightning will mean more of the other greenhouse gases, including ozone and methane, as the production of nitrogen oxide indirectly regulates the quantity of those gases in the atmosphere. More greenhouse gases means more rapid global warming.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.