Lightning strikes in the Arctic are set to more than double as the climate warms, according to a new study published in the journal Natural climate Change.
In 2015, Alaska saw an extreme increase in the number of fires, totaling more than 5.1 million acres of land burned by 770 fires across the northernmost tundra and forests.
To assess why these fires occurred, researchers at the University of California examined more than twenty years worth of NASA satellite data on lightning in the region to see if there was a connection.
Using future climate projections of multiple models used by the United Nations, the team estimates that an increase in atmospheric convection has led to more intense thunderstorms and, as a result, more lightning.
The researchers have highlighted that this is extremely dangerous for the Arctic ecosystem, the fires burning short grasses, mosses and shrubs that are important components of Arctic tundra ecosystems.
The fires also mean the melting of permafrost, the eternally frozen ground that defines much of the Arctic landscape. Permafrost preserves a lot of organic carbon which, when melted from the ice, will convert to carbon dioxide and methane, which, when released, will drive even more heating.
James Randerson, a professor in the UCI’s Department of Earth Systems Science who co-authored the study, was part of a NASA-led field campaign studying wildfires in Alaska in 2015, ‘ 2015 was an exceptional fire year due to a record number of fires starting. One thing that reminded us was that lightning was responsible for the record-breaking number of fires.
‘This phenomenon is very sporadic, and it is very difficult to measure precisely over long periods of time.
‘It’s so rare to have lightning above the Arctic Circle, hopefully these results will galvanize calls for new satellite missions that can control the Arctic and boreal latitudes for lightning attacks and the fires they can cause.’
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