Climate change and global warming behind an increase in lightning incidents and more deaths

49 people have died of lightning in the last three days in Uttar Pradesh prompting the government to issue guidelines regarding what to do and what not to during thunderstorms

IANS Photo
IANS Photo

Biswajeet Banerjee

On Tuesday, four members of a family, while working on the farm in the north Indian city of Kaushambi, took shelter under a tree when it started raining. Within minutes lightning struck, killing all four of them.

Superintendent of Police, Kaushambi, Hem Raj Meena said that the death was instantaneous. Three more villagers who were standing under another tree also died of lightning the same day.

These seven were among 49 people who died of lightning in the last three days in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh prompting the government to issue guidelines regarding what to do and what not to do during thunderstorms.

“Lightning is striking in a big way this year. People are dying more of lightning than rain-related incidents, though this is the time when people die of floods or other rain-related incidents,” government spokesman Shishir Singh said.

He said among the 49 people who have died of lightning, most were farmers working in their fields or cattle grazers.

In neighbouring Bihar, 20 people died of lightning in the last 48 hours, while 16 people died in Madhya Pradesh early this month.

Lightning is the occurrence of natural electric discharge of very short duration and a high voltage between a cloud and the ground or within a cloud accompanied by a bright flash and typically thunder too. It occurs in a flash of seconds and hence the impact is sudden, unlike other disasters.

Col Sanjay Srivastava, convener of the Lightning India Resilient Campaign, an organisation that is working with the Indian Meteorological Department to create awareness among people about lightning, said that lightning has been extreme promulgation of climate change extremities, mainly due to environmental degradation because of deforestation, depletion of water bodies, pollution and global warming.

J P Gupta, Director, Meteorological Department, said that this year the incidents of thunderstorms and lightning have increased because of harsh summer and an increase in pollution levels. “High ground temperature leads to evaporation from water bodies that add moisture to the atmosphere. Presence of aerosols due to air pollution creates favourable conditions for thunderclouds to trigger lightning activity,” Gupta said and added, “So, an increase in the events of lightning could be either associated with an increase in heated surface areas, increase in moisture levels or both”.

Thunderbolts contain as much as a billion volts of electricity and can cause immense damage to buildings when they hit.

The number of strikes has risen sharply as India has recorded more than 18 million lightning strikes between April 2020 and March 2021, according to a study by the non-profit Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council.

Sunita Narain, Director General Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said that global warming seems to have direct relation with the increase in the incidents of lightning. The annual Lightning Report 2020-21 shows that a 1-degree C rise in temperature increases lightning by 12 times.

Lightning Resilient India Campaign claims there has been a 34 per cent rise in lightning strikes in the country in one year. It has advanced from 1,38,00,000 strikes in 2019-2020 to 1,85,44,367 strikes in 2020-2021, an increase of 46,83,989 strikes.

With the increase in strikes, the number of deaths has also increased. Col Srivastava said that in 2016, India recorded 1,489 deaths while it went up to 2,869 in 2021. “These deaths are those where the government has paid compensation while there must be hundreds of people who died of lightning across India without the knowledge of government officials,” Srivastava said.

Since April this year, 750 people have died across India, claims Srivastava.

“All these deaths are preventable. The solution is there to stop deaths but the governments are keen in disbursing money after the death of a person. Technical problems need to be solved with a scientific approach but the government does not understand that,” Srivastava said.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has announced Rs 4 lakh as compensation for those who die of lightning.

“This money should be used to strengthen the alarm system to prevent death rather than distributing it to mourn the death,” he said.

The IMD and Indian scientists have developed a mobile app 'Damini' that seeks to provide real-time warnings about imminent strikes and precautions to be taken. But this app is of no use as the majority of the people in rural areas, where strikes are common, have no access to smartphones. They do not even know not to take shelter under a tree and avoid open areas in a thunderstorm, as CSE claims over 66 per cent deaths due to lightning occurred when people took shelter under trees.

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