Scientists say climate change is increasing the likelihood of lightning strikes in the United States after lightning struck a square near the White House, killing two people and leaving two others in critical condition.
Hot, humid conditions in Washington on Thursday favored electricity. The air temperature has reached 34 degrees Celsius -3 degrees above the normal maximum temperature for August 4 for the past 30 years, according to the National Weather Service.
More heat can attract more moisture to the atmosphere while encouraging rapid updraft, two key factors for charged particles, which lead to lightning. A major study published in 2014 in the journal Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50% this century in the United States. Every 1 ° C of warming would result in a 12% increase in the number of lightning strikes.
Rapid warming in Alaska has led to a 17% increase in lightning activity since the coldest 1980s. And in typically dry California, a cluster of about 14,000 lightning strikes in August 2020 caused some of the largest fires ever recorded in the state.
In addition to the United States, there is evidence that lightning is skyrocketing in India and Brazil as well.
But even as lightning strikes increase, being struck by one is still extremely rare in the United States, experts say. About 40 million lightning strikes in the country each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with the odds of being struck less than 1 in 1 million.
Of those afflicted, about 90 percent survive, the CDC says.
The two men and two women struck by lightning on Thursday while visiting Lafayette Square in Washington, north of the White House, were struck by lightning that struck the ground during a violent afternoon thunderstorm.
The lightning struck near a tree that is a few meters from the fence surrounding the presidential residence and the offices in front of the square, often crowded with visitors, especially in the summer months.
All four victims suffered serious injuries and were taken to area hospitals, where two later died, officials said.
“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life,” the White House said in a statement Friday. “Our heart goes out to families who have lost loved ones and we pray for those who still struggle for their lives”.
Since heat and humidity are often required to produce lightning, the highest incidence occurs in the summer. In the United States, Florida, a subtropical state, is where most people die from lightning.