Bolts from the sky

  • Incidents and casualties of lightning strikes are increasing in poor countries; many point to climate change
- Navin Singh Khadka
Bolts from the sky

Mar 21, 2014-

Upon going through frequent media reports on incidents and casualties of lighting strikes in Nepal in recent years, one question that has always come up : could this be happening elsewhere as well? In a research I conducted for a BBC report in the last few weeks, I discovered that this has indeed been happening in many developing and least-developed countries. Or, this is what meteorological officials of these countries, from across Africa and Latin America to South and South East Asia, say. Although no formal study has been carried out, their general observation is that lightning incidents are on the rise and so are casualties.

Catch-22 situation

In some countries, the total number of casualties resulting from lightning has been found to be higher than that of floods, landslides, wildfires and droughts. Yet, this natural hazard has hardly drawn the attention of policymakers and those working in the area of disaster risk reduction. Even in international climate negotiations, for instance, this issue has found almost no place. “I have tried to raise this a few times in climate negotiations but I don't hear about it in the meetings and nobody seems to be serious about it,” says Mohammed Quamrul Chaudhry, a negotiator from Bangladesh. “But we can't afford to ignore it because it is just going up in our country and in one recent incident more than 50 people died.”

Bangladeshi Meteorological officials say that they have observed an increase in lightning incidents in the entire South Asian region and that a proper study needs to be conducted on this issue. The problem is that these officials hesitate to speak out about such issues for fear of being challenged by the international scientific community.

“We too have noticed this rise,” says a meteorological scientist from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Meteorology Research Centre in Dhaka. “But when we tried to put it out publicly with the hope that there will be a proper research, we have been criticised for speaking about things that had yet to be proven scientifically.”

It is a classic catch-22 situation: if you do not speak about it, no one will pay attention and there will be no scientific study. And unless there is a scientific study, even authorities will hesitate to speak about it.

Climate change linkages

No wonder, Nepali officials in international climate negotiations have yet to touch upon the issue, even when they see media reports on the increasing number of people getting killed and injured by lightning in their own country. The limited climate discourse in Nepal has not been able to pick the issue up as well. But then, it is not that climate science is completely oblivious about lightning. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the supreme body on

climate science, has stated that thunderstorms and lightning will go up as global temperatures rise. Scientists say that different climate models have shown that this natural hazard will increase in the future. Although, there are some meteorologists who see no correspondence between the rising number of lightning incidents and the increasing figure of deaths and injuries from the natural hazard.

But even from a layman's perspective, it is hard to imagine how lightning can be an exception when we are being told that weather patterns will become extreme and weird. Rainfall and snowfall have been predicted to be erratic and seasons forecast to be different from what they used to be. And then, you have meteorologists from diverse developing countries telling you that they have noticed a rise in lightning incidents.  

Near the tropics

More than 70 percent of lightning incidents on earth occur in the tropic and sub-tropic regions and that is where most developing and least-developed countries are. Even without climate change, these countries were already seeing the most number of lightning flashes and strikes. And now, with extreme weather becoming the new normal, many scientists think lightning and casualties will both go up in these countries.

Equally important is the population factor. There are more people in developing and least developed countries now and most of them live in houses unprotected from lightning bolts. Those who work out in the field or forests are more exposed and vulnerable. “In the last 10 years, we are finding in Malawi, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and some parts of South Africa that lightning fatalities rate is like it was in the US a hundred years ago,” says Ron Holle, a meteorologist with Vaishala, a Finnish company that manufactures weather-related equipment. “The number of people that are living in places with unsafe housing, schools and other work places and also working in lightning-unsafe outdoors for agriculture may be going up.”

Meteorologists like Holle, who work internationally, say annual lightning casualties are going down drastically in developed countries, as low as zero in some of them. But it is just the opposite in developing and least-developed countries. When it comes to population, it is certainly something that the developing world will have to deal with largely on its own. But on the weather front, it relates to the bigger picture—mitigating climatic changes and adapting to its inevitable impacts. Both of these issues will involve the big players, including present-day major carbon-emitters and those countries that became rich after pumping out huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the last two centuries.

Will developing and least-developed countries across the globe be able to raise the lightning issue with major players? Especially, when they have been fighting an uphill battle to claim compensation from the developed world for all the losses and damages caused by climatic changes? The irony is that to even raise the issue, they will first have to take help from the same developed world to conduct scientific studies on lightning.

Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London and can be reached at navin.khadka@gmail.com


Published: 21-03-2014 09:39

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