Dec 16, 2018 | Updated: 09:51 PM EST

Wildfires May Fill our Future as Climate Change Sparks Lightning

Nov 13, 2014 09:42 PM EST

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Anthropogenic climate change, caused by the actions and emissions put forth by humans, has been a major conversation starter in recent months. But new research released today in the journal Science says that we may be looking at a future filled with a few more sparks rather than just warmer summers and rising seas.

The study, conducted by atmospheric researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed towards a warming atmosphere capable of holding more moisture as being the main ingredients of a lightning strike. And as the global climate warms up this century, the researchers say that the frequency of lightning flashes could increases by an estimated 50 percent across the United States.

Lead author of the study, David Romps, says that lightning triggers nearly half of all wildfires in the continental U.S. And if climate change sparks more lightning in the coming years, then that may just set wildfires ablaze in the warmer world of tomorrow.

"Lightning plays an important role in atmospheric chemistry and the initiation of wildfires" Romps says. "But the impact of global warming on lightning rates is poorly constrained."

While current models are fairly accurate at predicting lightning frequency based on the thickness of thunderclouds, as observational studies have proven that taller clouds generate more lightning Romps says, there are still significant flaws within modeling techniques that the research team sought to change. Looking into the exponential relationship of lightning predicting equations, Romps' team decided to add in covariant factors that are the main reasons for how lightning is made. And by addressing moisture and upward air movement, the study hoped to attain far more accurate predictions out of its complex model.

And while the flash of increased lightning may spark wildfires in drier parts of the continental U.S., the researchers say that there will also be an interesting trade-off in the greenhouse gas structure of the upper atmosphere as well. On the negative, as lighting strikes through the lower atmosphere, adjacent oxygen gas molecules are zapped and the result is much more ozone, a potent greenhouse gas that gives off that distinct lightning storm smell. But in turn, lightning also produces compounds called nitrogen oxides, known to indirectly reduce levels of methane in the atmosphere as well.

So while researchers fear that a bit more sparks will lead to flames, there may also be a silver lining to the storms ahead!

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