Lightning strikes in India see 34% rise than previous year, finds CSE study
Between April 2020 and March this year, India witnessed 18.5 million lightning strikes, marking a significant 34% increase in 13.8 million bolts from the blue in a similar period the previous year, a study by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Down to Earth found.
Laying stress on the trend that the number and frequency of lightning strikes have increased globally, the environment think-tank attempted to find out their link with climate change and unchecked urbanisation.
As many as 1,697 people were killed after they were struck by lightning between March last year and April this year. Experts are of the view that the increase in incidents of lightning strikes are owing to climate change.
“There is growing scientific evidence that climate change may be sparking more lightning across the world. Rapid urbanisation and population growth have guaranteed an intensification of human exposure to lightning hazards,” says Down To Earth managing editor Richard Mahapatra.
In recent months states such as West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Puducherry have seen a sudden spurt in incidents of lightning strikes. Punjab has seen an exponential 331% annual rise in such incidents while in Bihar — where 401 people lost their lives to lightning strikes during the year — recodes a 168% rise.
National Disaster Management Authority listed thunderstorms accompanied by lightning strikes (usually in the pre-monsoon and monsoon months) are the single-largest killers among natural disasters in India.
A study conducted by California University in 2015 projected that a rise in average global temperatures by 1ºC would increase the frequency of lightning by at least 12%.
A soon-to-be-published paper in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics also cautioned that the frequency of lightning strikes in India are expected to increase by 10% to 25% every year and could grow by 50% by the turn of the century.
Experts have found that a foreboding dimension of the rise in incidents of lightning strikes is their link to growing forest fires. “Scientists from the Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Srinagar, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, have studied the concentration of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) in different weather conditions in the central Himalayan region. They have found a five-time higher concentration of CCN in the atmosphere during forest fires as against during rains. In May 2021, researchers in Australia linked excess CCN to the increased number of lightning strikes during the 2019-20 Australia forest fires,” says Kiran Pandey, programme director of CSE’s environmental resources unit.
However, India has made some progress to mitigate the adverse effects of lightning strikes. The rise in fatalities prompted the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to start lightning forecasts from April 1, 2019. Lightning India Resilient Campaign (LRIC), a joint initiative of several bodies such as Climate Resilient Observing-Systems Promotion Council (CROPC), National Disaster Management Authority, IMD, Union ministry of earth sciences and others aims to reduce the number of deaths due to lightning strikes to less than 1,200 a year by 2022.
A senior reporter with Down to Earth, Akshit Sangomla said the LRIC campaign helped bring down lightning-related deaths by more than 60% within two years of its launch. “Dedicated efforts by governments of states like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha have led to a 70% reduction in fatalities,” Sangomla added.
CSE’ Kiran Pandey said the recorded incidents of lightning revealed that the seasonality of bolt is different each state, and laid stress that the lightning risk management programme is customised for each state according to their seasonality, frequency of occurrence and intensity.
“States should undertake lightning micro-zonation for the regions inside their boundaries, depending on their geography, to handle the disaster and death risks better. These are LRIC’s recommendations and they make a lot of sense,” says Pandey.
Mahapatra was of the view that even though fatalities from lightning strikes cannot be reduced to zero, their numbers can be decreased.
He spoke on the need to create general awareness about universal safe practices, such as staying indoors for up to 30 minutes after the last flash if the time between a lightning flash and thunder is less than 30 seconds. “The next steps would involve making use of the evolving science and technology on the subject and decentralising predictions and risk management,” Mahapatra said.