There are 1.4 billion lightning strikes globally each year — 25 million of those bolts occur in the U.S., and that number may be going way up.

A study, recently published in the journal Science, concludes that a 50 percent increase in lightning strike frequency is possible by the end of the century due to rising global temperatures as a result of human-induced climate change.

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(credit: NOAA)

(credit: NOAA)

Lightning strike injuries, fatalities and the occurrence of wildfires could thus rise as well.

The study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the State University of New York at Albany, predicts an increase in lightning strikes by about 12 percent for every degree Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) of average global temperature rise.

The two main parameters which influence lightning strike generation are water vapor and something we weather nerds call CAPE (convective available potential energy), or basically a measure of how primed the atmosphere is for thunderstorm action.

The warmer the air, the more water vapor it is able to hold.

Warming of a local atmosphere, whether by daytime heating or frontal boundary passage, increases instability in the atmosphere thereby yielding potentially higher CAPE values.



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In the study, utilizing 11 different climate models, researchers determined that an increase in both of these parameters is likely by the end of the century, and the increase in these atmospheric variables is predicted to yield an increase in lightning flash rate.

To date in 2014, in the United States, there have been 26 lightning fatalities, including three victims in Wisconsin.

(credit: NOAA)

(credit: NOAA)

Higher CAPE values, and more frequent high CAPE days, as a result of a warming climate are likely to affect tornado trends as well.

Though instability is likely to increase, wind shear is likely to decrease on average. Wind shear is the change in wind speed and direction with height and is a key component in tornado genesis.

This may sounds great initially — less shear, fewer tornadoes — and yes there may be fewer tornado days. However, tornado outbreaks may become more frequent due to the increased CAPE or energy for thunderstorm development.

Climate change or global warming is having and will have innumerable impacts on our atmospheric environment — these changes will thus alter the weather we experience in our everyday lives.

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Remember that “global warming” refers to an increase in the average global temperature. Neither our November frigid snap nor any extreme cold weather is evidence contrary to the fact that our climate system is warming.