Another benefit of global warming – less lightning

From the UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH: Lightning storms less likely in a warming planet, study suggests

Lightning may strike less often in future across the globe as the planet warms, a scientific study suggests.

The research forecasts a 15 per cent drop in the average number of lightning flashes worldwide by the turn of this century, if global temperatures are in the top range of forecasts.

A drop in the incidence of lightning strikes could impact on the frequency of wildfires, especially in tropical regions.

It could also lower the incidence of lightning strikes to infrastructure and affect how greenhouse gases in the atmosphere contribute to climate change.

Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Leeds and Lancaster University used a newly devised method to calculate the likely incidence of lightning flashes from storm clouds.

Unlike traditional calculations of lightning flashes at the global scale, which are based on the height of clouds, their approach takes into account the movement of tiny ice particles that form and move within clouds. Electrical charges build up in these ice particles, and in cold water droplets and soft hail formed inside clouds. These are discharged during storms, giving rise to lightning flashes and thunder. Scientists estimate there are 1.4 billion lightning flashes each year around the world.

The latest results, accounting for a 5C rise in global average temperatures by the year 2100, show that on average lightning flashes are less likely in future, in contrast to previous studies.

Scientists previously verified their method by applying it to current conditions. The research, published in Nature Climate Change, was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Dr Declan Finney of the University of Leeds, formerly of the University of Edinburgh, who carried out the study, said: “This research questions the reliability of previous projections of lightning, and encourages further study into the effects of climate change on cloud ice and lightning.”

Professor Ruth Doherty, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, said: “This research expands our current knowledge of climate change impacts on lightning and suggests that in a warmer world, the incidence of lightning is likely to decrease.”

Professor Oliver Wild, Of Lancaster University, said: “The results provide new insight into the likely impacts of lightning on future atmospheric composition and climate.”


The finding is interesting, and contradictory some claims of increased severe weather that is expected due to warming. Usually, lighting frequency and intensity increases with thunderstorm magnitude, and large thunderstorms are more likely to produce torrential rainfall (flash flooding), destructive downburst winds, large hail, and tornadoes.


ADDED: (since the press release didn’t contain it) Of course, the study uses RCP 8.5 modeling, which is wildly overbiased, so take it with a grain of salt.

The study:

A projected decrease in lightning under climate change


Fig. 1: Changes in lightning flash rate between the 2000s and 2100s using two lightning schemes.


Lightning strongly influences atmospheric chemistry1,2,3, and impacts the frequency of natural wildfires4. Most previous studies project an increase in global lightning with climate change over the coming century1,5,6,7, but these typically use parameterizations of lightning that neglect cloud ice fluxes, a component generally considered to be fundamental to thunderstorm charging8. As such, the response of lightning to climate change is uncertain. Here, we compare lightning projections for 2100 using two parameterizations: the widely used cloud-top height (CTH) approach9, and a new upward cloud ice flux (IFLUX) approach10 that overcomes previous limitations. In contrast to the previously reported global increase in lightning based on CTH, we find a 15% decrease in total lightning flash rate with IFLUX in 2100 under a strong global warming scenario. Differences are largest in the tropics, where most lightning occurs, with implications for the estimation of future changes in tropospheric ozone and methane, as well as differences in their radiative forcings. These results suggest that lightning schemes more closely related to cloud ice and microphysical processes are needed to robustly estimate future changes in lightning and atmospheric composition.


67 thoughts on “Another benefit of global warming – less lightning

  1. This study has to be wrong. There can be absolutely no benefit to global warming.
    This has been decreed by the Grande Apostles, like Al Gore and his Majesty Michael Mann.

  2. All these “studies” have weasel words like “may” or “could” or “might”, but that indicates settled science.

  3. I’m thinking of the basic question “is there more cumulo nimbus build-up and subsequent lightning on hot days or cold days?” Basic issues like that make me skeptical of these kinds of reports.

    • I think the piece that’s missing is that it isn’t “higher average temperatures” that drive stormy weather, but higher temperature *differentials.* A warming world means smaller temperature differentials – less surface-high atmosphere differentials, less equator to pole differentials, less day vs. night differentials. All reducing the turbulence and convection that drives storms.

      • Space is always the same temperature.
        A warmer world COULD (not necessarily SHOULD) create bigger thunderstorms.

  4. Will the silliness ever end? In all fairness, cloud to cloud strikes and sprites show up in the lightning stats and send the numbers askew, and they far outnumber the ground hits!

  5. If the secular warming/cooling is controlled by the 800 year Jose cycle (the millenial cycle), and the Jose cycle caused the Maunder Minimum, then 400 years after the Maunder, the warming phase should be over and, guess what, that took place in the year 2000. I’m looking for gradual secular cooling for the next 400 years.

  6. While it is fairly obvious there are benefits from warming, I remain sceptical of any predictions of what future weather looks like either on the positive or negative side since we really don’t understand most of the dynamics.

  7. “Scientists estimate there are 1.4 billion lightning flashes each year around the world.”
    And everyone who lives in Florida knows that 83% of those only hit golf courses.

  8. Seems this would be a significant hit to the nitrogen cycle.
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    But are we really going to get a “5C rise in global average temperatures by the year 2100“?
    Isn’t 5° greater than that of RCP8.5?
    [Representative Concentration Pathways of the IPCC]

  9. Lightning strikes play a role in fixing nitrogen. Less lightning could mean that farmers need to apply more nitrogen to their fields.

    • ‘Farmers of the poor countries hardest hit’
      ‘Women and children to suffer as natural nitrogen disappears’
      ‘Scientists have discovered a significant drop in naturally occurring nitrous oxide. This finding, which was heroically found in the University of Edinborough, forces us to rethink our carbon emissions. Skeptics have long insisted that increase of the atmospheric greenhouse gasses increase crop yields. While this might add up to the productivity in the first world, the new results show that developing countries will need to buy incrasing amounts of expensive artificial fertilizers. These will put the farmers in the third world, often women, between a rock and a hard place, placing a burden to those children whose education depends on if their labour is needed at the fields.’

      • Yes indeed! Electrical discharges tend to ionize air and break air molecules apart — and who knows how they’ll come back together? The argon won’t do much — it’s only 1% of the atmosphere. But there’ll be loose oxygen and nitrogen atoms out there, and a lot of them will end up creating nitrogen oxides — fertilizer.
        They’ll also combine with the water in the air to make nitrous and nitric acids. That’s why 18th- and 19th-century leyden jars almost always are irretrievably scungy and corroded: the acid is bad for the tin foil (*really* tin) coating them.

    • how much power does it take to send out that strong of a signal (and how does the power source fit on the boat?)

  10. Am I not correct in that fewer lightning strikes means less Ozone at altitude? Less Ozone = more UV getting through = more skin cancers.. so this may not be beneficial, but more in the line of we are all going to die of melanoma!! Why is the Guardian not on this like mud on a pig?

    • It means less ozone at ground level. Ozone formation in the classic “ozone layer” is in the stratosphere, well above the troposphere.

  11. 5C by 2100! That makes the whole paper fantasy. This is so typical. I’d take a bet that they tried 1.5C first and moved up until they could tease some imaginary signal from completely fabricated (invalidated models) “data”. one of those noise generated hockey sticks turned upside down. No joke here. It was done by Mann with a contaminated (Tiljander Lake proxy that the original researcher who developed it, advised it was contaminated) lake mud proxy from Finnland.
    McIntyre, a very thorough statistician, detected that it was also used upside down. In updated papers by Mann, he still retained the proxy and upside down. Mac became the world’s best proxy climate scientist, simply by finding so many errors and improper uses of statistics and invalid proxies. He even personally collected update data from a species of pine, to show it was totally unreliable as a proxy. Mann argued it was too expensive to mount an expedition to update. McIntyre responded that he would start at a Starbucks at breakfast and be back by lunch at the same shop. You guessed it. He did just that. The big result was, after retraction and withdrawals because of errors (no one acknowledged Mac for this, surprise surprise) that use of proxies have become fewer, more careful, and they use statistical methods more acceptable to McIntyre.
    I’d also take a bet that, with business as usual, we will not attain a 2100 temp greater than double the 0.8 we’ve had since 1880. Of course, I’d have to also double my age to collect, malheureusement!

  12. Just as I was getting over computers and people calling themselves scientists predicting the average temperature of the earth a hundred years from now, someone is now predicting lightning strikes? I am sorry, researchers in Florida have been studying lightning for decades and still don’t fully understand it, so how can anyone make a prediction for some decades in the future.

  13. I had an acquaintance who grew up in an area of Montana characterized by dry-land farming. During her youth, an increasing number of farmers drilled wells so that they could irrigate their acreage and increase crop yields. She said that afternoon thunderstorms, once an extremely rare event, became a daily occurrence. My conclusion is this: as the area of land that is irrigated for agriculture increases, the number of afternoon thunderstorms will as well. A warming world should result in an increased number of thunderstorms, don’t you think?

  14. Let’s see … a 5C warmer world, modeled with no direct simulation of thunderstorms, will produce fewer lightning strikes, which only occur, by definition, in thunderstorms. What if, instead, we realize that the 5C warmer world is implausible, precisely BECAUSE of what thunderstorms do with heat. We readily observe as the lightning flashes, the thunder roars, and the torrents of rain come down, that heat is being blasted upward at impressive rates.

  15. Less lightning as things warm up? Hogwash.
    Okay, explain thundersnow – lightning and thunder in a snowstorm – so that means more thundersnow in the winter – right?

  16. I thought Venus had greater lightning activity than Earth while also having higher CO2 content, and certainly has hotter temperatures. I guess that was part of the alternate science that I should have forgotten or at least not somehow learned. Or maybe it was a manifestation of my unstable memory.

  17. If atmospheric ice particles were the determining factor for lightning, I’d be blinded right now because the atmosphere where I am is full of ice particles.

    Generally, two types of thunderstorms are common:
    1) Air mass thunderstorms which occur in the mid-latitudes in summer and at the equator all year long. … link

    Thunder is caused by lightning. Thunderstorms are more common nearer the equator. Thunderstorms are uncommon when it’s cold out. In the unlikely event that there is five degrees of warming, it seems likely that there will be more mid-latitude thunderstorms and therefore more lightning.
    Ice crystals are one factor that causes lightning. There are lots of others. Focusing on ice crystals alone is unlikely to produce an accurate prediction.

  18. I don’t like the title of the paper – “A projected decrease in lightning under climate change”.
    It reads as if climate change will CAUSE less lightning.
    As climate is an average of weather over a period, whatever lightning occurs during that period contributes to the climate.
    They have the cart leading the horse.
    There is also the usual pitch for more funds for the cart they are riding in (my bold):

    These results suggest that lightning schemes more closely related to cloud ice and microphysical processes are needed to robustly estimate future changes in lightning and atmospheric composition.

    Note that they also admit that their results are not robust as that is why more lightning schemes are required.

  19. Maybe they starting to considering that too much lightning kills AGW, so, no much lightning allowed for now on…:)

  20. These people don’t get out much do they? Even when they come to tropical places for their gabfests, they don’t seem to take in their surroundings. Thunderstorms are one of the emergent phenomena identified by Willis.The warmer it is, the more likely they are to occur. When it’s hot and sticky round here, we get a thunderstorm. Sometimes we HOPE we get a thunderstorm, in spite of the inherent danger. After that, everything cools off a bit. Same reason a cyclone isn’t all bad news. Might fill the reservoir that is still only 15%, and the end of the wet season is not far off.

    • I guess that as we approach 2050 the climate modellers will have to extend their analysis to the year 2200 because even the IPCC will recognize that a less than 1 degree C rise for the next 82 years is not enough to scare people. Thus lengthening the projections will up the temperature significantly since the climate models have it directly programmed into them. Nick Stokes replied to me on another thread that 1.4 degrees C per century (even though last century was less than 1 C increase) cant continue forever or else we will have catastrophe. So now Nick Stokes agrees that Al Gore was wrong. Al Gore said we would have catastrophic warming (or heating if he really meant catastrophic) in a very short period of time. So now Nick has resigned himself to agreeing with the IPCC about the low increase in warming. So folks we dont have catastrophic immediate warming we may have a slow warmup 1.4 C per century (Nick Stokes and the IPCC). Actually the IPCC is a bit more pessimistic than Nick cause their range is 1.5 to 4.5) So can we call it Slow catastrophic AGW? The problem with that theory is it isnt runaway global warming. You cant have a slow buildup of warming over centuries without it getting worse at some point ( in other words you need acceleration). This is because that increase in CO2 happens in a finite atmosphere. There is only so much space to go around. Any buildup of CO2 crowds out the other molecules in the atmosphere. Just ask Venus . It has 97% CO2. However the reason that Venus is hot as hell is 1) it is closer (2/3 of the way) to the sun than Earth 2) It lost most of its water because it has no magnetic field to keep the solar wind at bay.
      Without the acceleration the earth system will always balance itself. There is no physical mechanism whereby 1 input increase(CO2) can cause a steady buildup of heat without that buldup accelerating. Unless CO2 leads to runaway heating then the whole theory is kaput. That is why the AGW crowd needs the supposed positive cloud reinforcing. We may have seen a real increase in warming( which I doubt very much based on the evidence) but we certainly havent seen an accelerated increase in warming. Even the IPCC can’t tell us when this accelerated warming is supposed to happen. Maybe the GOD of Climate Change himself Mr. Nick Stokes can tell us.

  21. We had terrific storms here in Sydney, Australia a few weeks back I got caught out in on my way home from work, got drenched. When I did get home found our home Wi-Fi router failing and the garage door opener motor had tripped off. Must have been a direct hit to the block.
    Love storms like that!

  22. “Electrical charges build up in these ice particles, and in cold water droplets and soft hail formed inside clouds.”
    This is not how lightning works. A large bolt of lightning transfers on the order of 100 Coulombs. Voltage is joules per Coulomb and to get the billion volts necessary to break down the air between the cloud and the surface requires an energy on the order of 100 billion Joules.
    There are no free charges in a cloud. The water in clouds has an electric dipole moment and starting with the fair weather electric field, they align producing a dipole cloud forming a pair of capacitors, one to the surface and another to the ionosphere. The billions of Joules of energy are not in the form of the kinetic energy of these ice particles in motion. The origin of the energy is the potential energy of a mass of liquid and solid water lifted against the force of gravity.
    The energy for cloud to ground lightning is not stored in the cloud, but in the space between the surface and the cloud as the mass of water in the cloud pushes down on the top plate of the capacitor between the cloud and surface.
    When a capacitor charges, the plates are drawn together with a force and are held apart mechanically until the energy stored in the capacitor is equal and opposite to the electrostatic force between the plates. As a capacitor discharges, the plates are pushed apart. This is symmetrical and just as a charging and discharging capacitor results in a force between the plates, a force between the plates can charge (or discharge) a capacitor. This is easily tested by experiment.

  23. No, no, wrong. A degree C of ground level warming increases evaporation, increases convection, increases cumulus clouds, increases rainfall, so must increase lightning storms.

  24. Lightning produces nitrates which then rain down and help fertilize the soil. Less lightning is not beneficial.

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