Meteorologists were stunned this week as three consecutive thunderstorms swept across the icy Arctic from Siberia to northern Alaska, unleashing lightning in an unusual event that scientists believe will become less rare in the face of global warming.
"Forecasters have never seen anything like this before," said Ed Plumb, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, referring to the storms starting Saturday.
Usually, the air over the Arctic Ocean, especially when the water is covered with ice, does not have the convective heat necessary for thunderstorms.
But as the climate changes, the Arctic is warming up faster than the rest of the world, scientists say.
Summer lightning episodes within the Arctic Circle have tripled since 2010, and the trend is directly related to climate change and increasing sea ice loss in the far north, scientists say in a study published in Geophysical Research Letters. As the sea ice disappears, more water can evaporate, adding moisture to the warming atmosphere.
"This will happen with increasing temperatures," said study co-author Robert Halsworth, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle.
These electrical storms threaten the boreal forests that fringe the Arctic as they trigger wildfires in remote regions that are already warming up under the 24-hour summer sun.”Boreal Siberia (Boreal forests are forests that grow in high latitudes, where freezing temperatures persist from 6 to 8 months of the year) Russia receives more lightning than any other Arctic region, Holsworth said.
The work also recorded more frequent lightning over the treeless tundra of the Arctic, as well as over the Arctic Ocean and pack ice. In August 2019, lightning even struck within 60 miles (100 km) of the North Pole, researchers found.
In Alaska alone, thunderstorm activity will triple by the end of the century if current climate trends continue, according to two studies by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, published last year in the journal Climate Dynamics.
"What used to be very rare is now just rare," said Rick Thoman, a climatologist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. According to him, as the parade of Arctic storms showed this week, lightning is already appearing in unexpected places. "I don't remember having three such days in a row in the Arctic."
In connection with a sharp increase in the number of lightning, in Siberia in recent years, more and more fierce forest fires occur. This week, the Russian army deployed water-dumping planes to extinguish flames burning about 2 million acres (800,000 hectares) of forest, and a state of emergency has been in effect in the most-hit region of Yakutia for weeks.
Meanwhile, in mid-June, lightning triggered one of the largest fires this summer in Alaska, burning more than 18,000 acres of tundra 125 miles (200 km) north of the Arctic Circle in the Noatak National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern part of the state.
Warming in the Arctic is also fueling tundra vegetation in northern Alaska, which creates additional breeding ground for wildfires, scientists say.
By the end of the century, Alaska could regularly burn twice as much tundra as it was in the past, and fires will occur four times more often, according to researchers at the International Center for Arctic Research in Fairbanks.
On the water, lightning is an increasing threat to mariners, and vessel traffic increases as the sea ice recedes, Halsworth said.