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Lightning in Tonga Volcano's 'Cataclysmic' Eruption Breaks 'All Records'

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When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in January 2022, it sent shockwaves around the world. Not only did it trigger widespread tsunami waves, but it also spewed out a huge amount of climate-warming water vapor in Earth’s stratosphere.

Now, researchers in a new report have revealed something else: the eruption triggered more than 25,500 lightning strikes in just five minutes. Over the course of just six hours, the volcano triggered nearly 400,000 lightning strikes. Half of all the lightning in the world was concentrated around this volcano at the peak of the eruption.

The “cataclysmic eruption” broke “all records”, according to the report by Vaisala, an environmental monitoring company that tracks lightning around the world.

“It’s the most extreme concentration of lightning we’ve ever detected,” Chris Vagasky, meteorologist and lightning specialist at Vaisala, told CNN. “We’ve been detecting lightning for 40 years, and this is really an extreme event.”

One-minute snapshots of lightning over the eruption of Tonga Volcano on January 15.  Lightning surrounded the volcano

Vaisala’s annual report found that 2022 was a year of extremes for lightning. Lightning surged in the U.S. in 2022, with more than 198 million lightning strikes — 4 million more than what was seen in 2021 and 28 million more than what was seen in 2020.

“We continue to have an upward trend in lightning,” Vagasky said.

The Worldwide Lightning Tracking Network, another lightning monitoring network led by the University of Washington, which is not involved with the report, said Vaisala’s findings on global lightning, as well as the Hunga volcano, are consistent with its own observations. .

“We can do this because the strongest eruptions generate lightning, and lightning sends detectable radio signals around the world,” Robert Holzworth, director of the network, told CNN. “The Hunga eruption was absolutely stunning in its lightning activity.”

The researchers used lightning as a key indicator of the climate crisis, as the phenomenon normally signals warming temperatures. Lightning occurs in energetic storms associated with an unstable atmosphere, requiring relatively warm and humid air, which is why it occurs mainly at tropical latitudes and elsewhere during the summer months.

But in 2022, Vaisala’s National Lightning Detection Network found more than 1,100 lightning strikes in Buffalo, New York, during a devastating lake-effect snowstorm that dumped more than 30 inches of snow on the city, but amassed historic totals of over 6 feet into the surrounding suburbs along Lake Erie. Lake effect snow occurs when cold air blows over warm lake water, in this case the Great Lakes. The large temperature difference can cause extreme instability in the atmosphere and lead to thunderstorm-like lightning even in a snowstorm.

More than 1,100 lightning strikes were detected in Buffalo, New York, during a devastating lake-effect snowstorm that dumped over 30 inches of snow across the city, but accumulated historic totals of over 6 feet in suburbs along Lake Erie.

The report noted that many of these strikes happened near wind turbines south of Buffalo, which Vagasky said was significant. He explained that the clouds full of ice crystals were lower than normal, scraping just above the turbine blades.

“This can cause what’s known as self-initiated upward lightning,” Vagasky said. “So lightning occurs because you’ve charged the tip of this wind turbine blade which is very close to the base of the cloud, and it’s very easy to get a connection from the electrical charge.”

This is an area of ​​ongoing research, he said, as the country turns to cleaner energy alternatives.

“We’re seeing bigger and bigger wind turbines, and certainly as we put more and more wind and renewable energy into it, lightning will play a part in that,” he said.

The report comes after an unusual year in 2021, when they found lightning increased significantly in the typically frozen Arctic region, which scientists say is a clear sign of how the climate crisis is altering the global climate.

“Lightning in polar regions was not mentioned [in this year’s Vaisala report], but our global lightning network shows a trend towards much more lightning in the northern polar regions,” Michael McCarthy, research associate professor and associate director of the World Wide Lightning Location Network, told CNN. “This trend closely tracks observed average temperature changes in the northern hemisphere.

“This tracking suggests, but does not prove, a climate change effect,” added McCarthy.

Vagasky said lightning in colder areas will only increase as the planet warms, noting that meteorologists and climatologists have been collecting more data to not only shed light on climate connections but also keep people safe.

“That’s why they named lightning as a key climate variable,” he said, “because it’s important to know where it’s occurring, how much is occurring, and so you can see how storms are trending as a result of climate change.”