Lightning strike in Washington DC that killed three prompts climate warning

Written by Javed Iqbal

Aug 5 (Reuters) – Scientists say climate change is increasing the likelihood of lightning strikes across the United States after lightning struck a square near the White House, leaving three people dead and another in critical condition.

The hot, humid conditions in Washington DC on Thursday were primed for electricity. Air temperatures reached 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34 degrees Celsius) – or 5F (3C) higher than the 30-year normal maximum temperature for Aug. 4, according to the National Weather Service.

More heat can draw more moisture into the atmosphere while encouraging rapid upwelling—two key factors for charged particles that lead to lightning strikes. A key examination published in 2014 in the journal Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50% this century in the United States, with every 1 C (1.8 F) of warming translating into a 12% increase in the number of lightning strikes.

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Fast heating Alaska has seen a 17% increase in lightning activity since the cooler 1980s. And in typically dry California, a siege of about 14,000 lightning strikes in August 2020 sparked some of the state’s largest wildfires on record.

In addition to the United States, there are signs that lightning strikes are also increasing India and Brazil.

But even though lightning strikes are increasing, it is still extremely rare to be struck by one in the United States, experts say. About 40 million lightning strikes hit the country each year, according to the Center for Disease Control — with odds of being struck less than 1 in a million.

Among those who are affected, about 90% survive the ordeal, the CDC says. The country counted 444 deaths from lightning strikes from 2006 to 2021.

The two men and two women struck by lightning Thursday while visiting Washington’s Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, were among the unlucky few — struck by a bolt that struck the ground during a violent afternoon thunderstorm.

The lightning struck near a tree standing meters (meters) away from the fence that surrounds the presidential residence and offices opposite the square, which is often crowded with visitors, especially during the summer months.

All four victims suffered critical, life-threatening injuries and were taken to area hospitals. Read more Two of them later died: James Mueller, 76, and Donna Mueller, 75, of Janesville, Wis., the Metropolitan Police Department said.

“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life,” the White House said in a statement Friday. “Our hearts go out to the families who lost loved ones and we pray for those who are still fighting for their lives.”

Later Friday, a third victim, a 29-year-old man, was pronounced dead, the Metropolitan Police Department said. Additional information about the victim was withheld pending notification of next of kin.

Because heat and moisture are often needed to make lightning, most of them strikes happen in the summer. In the US, the populous, subtropical state of Florida sees the most people killed by lightning.

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Reporting by Gloria Dickie in London; Additional reporting by Frank McGurty in New York and Chris Gallagher in Washington; Editing by Louise Heavens, Mark Porter & Shri Navaratnam

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Javed Iqbal

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