Are lightning strikes linked to climate change?

The recent surge in lightning cases in the country could be hardly linked to the effects of climate change, leading Rwandan experts said.
Loggers fell trees for timber. (John Mbanda)
Loggers fell trees for timber. (John Mbanda)

The recent surge in lightning cases in the country could be hardly linked to the effects of climate change, leading Rwandan experts said.

Over the past few years, reports of lightning injuring or killing people and domestic animals have been common.

Though efforts to get recent figures were fruitless by press time, statistics from the Ministry for Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (Midmar) indicate that 28 people died after being struck by lightning while 53 others were injured between January and December last year.

And the past six months have witnessed several incidents across the country with the recent one being the death of a 28-year-old woman who was struck by lightning in the south-eastern district of Kirehe last month.

Didace Musoni, the head of data management at Rwanda Meteorology Agency, told The New Times that there is no evidence to suggest that lightning incidences in the country are on the increase.

He, however, attributed the seeming rise in reports to increased media coverage and growing public attention to such incidents.

Though the country has experienced many effects related to climate change, including erratic rain patterns, Musoni says there is little evidence to suggest that the lightning incidences that have shocked several parts of the country are a result of climate change.

“Rwanda is situated in an area that is prone to lightning,” Musoni says, noting that the tropical zone is vulnerable to lightning strikes.

Experts’ estimates indicate that about 100 lightning bolts strike the earth every second with more than 70 per cent of them taking place in tropical and sub-tropical regions.

A hilly topography makes Rwanda much more vulnerable, Musoni argues.

“It is perhaps the reason why  areas such as Rutsiro, Karongi, Nyamasheke and Nyabihu, among others, which form part of the mountainous Congo-Nile Crest have been more vulnerable to lightning strikes,” he says.

Prof. Bonfils Safari, a physician, researcher and lecturer at the University of Rwanda, who has covered lightning extensively, holds a similar view.

He says it would be hard to link climate change and lightning in the Rwandan context.

“There is no direct link between the two,” he says.

Globally, there are no conclusive studies about the relationship between climate change and lightning incidences.

Scientists who have analysed the trend, however, conclude that lightning incidences might increase as the world’s temperatures rise.

In an article published last March, BBC quotes Professor Collin Price, a lightning and climate researcher at Tel Aviv University, saying that for every one degree Celsius of warming, there is approximately a 10 per cent increase in lightning activity.

Rwandan scientists concur and argue that with the observed changes in global temperatures, thunderstorms and lightning might become more common with time.

“Based on our projections, perhaps in a hundred or so years, we might experience several deadly lightning strikes due to the change in global temperatures and precipitations,” Musoni says.

“It is also most likely that the number of those killed or injured in such incidents will rise.”

Available figures indicate that over the past 40 years, temperatures increased by about 0.6°C due to climate change.