Why Lightning Strikes in an Arctic Gone Bizarro

Wired | 8/13/2019 | Staff
eymira (Posted by) Level 3
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This weekend, something peculiar visited the Arctic, a mere 300 miles from the north pole: lightning. Peculiar because thunderstorms are typically a warm-weather phenomenon, in which the sun heats air, which rises and condenses into water droplets. At the same time, cooler air pulls downward in the “deep convective cloud,” and all that moving air builds electrical charges that eventually blast down to Earth as lightning.

The Arctic is supposed to be cold, of course, making thunderstorms—much less the dozens, perhaps hundreds of strikes that materialized near the north pole over the weekend—a rarity. But no longer. The region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and this summer in particular has brought record-breaking heat. A lack of sea ice means more water is exposed to the sun, which means more moisture rises, forming thunderstorms. “The probability of this kind of event occurring would increase as the sea ice extent retreats farther and farther north in the summertime,” says Alex Young, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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Weirder still, on top of there typically being not enough heat to form deep convective clouds in the Arctic, there’s also a limit to how high these things can build up into the...
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