An increase in the number of lightning storms may increase the amount of cirrus clouds and increase the global warming process
A new study by Tel Aviv University found a clear statistical connection between lightning storms around the world and the formation of cirrus clouds, which may increase global warming. The researchers: "It is known that cirrus clouds may cause global warming, yet it is very difficult to track them and obtain accurate data for them. Our findings indicate that an increase in the number of lightning storms around the world may greatly increase the amount of cirrus clouds and thus intensify the climate crisis."
The research was conducted under the leadership of Prof. Colin Price from the Department of Geophysics at the Porter School of Environment and Earth Sciences at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with researchers at Tripura University in India. The article was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
"Cirrus clouds, those light clouds we see in the sky, have a significant effect on the Earth's climate," explains Prof. Price. "A large amount of cirrus clouds may act as a kind of blanket, which increases the warming, while when the amount is small, the heat rises upwards and is released outside the atmosphere. For this reason, climate researchers show great interest in the cirrus clouds, and try to predict changes that may occur in them - mainly due to the increase in greenhouse gases and the warming of the earth. But here we encounter a significant problem, because it is very difficult to obtain accurate and comprehensive data on cirrus clouds. They are very thin and sometimes invisible, even to satellites in space, and in addition they are in the upper atmosphere, far from the measuring stations on the ground."
Can lightning be used as a reliable measure of the amount of cirrus clouds?
To answer the challenge, the researchers examined whether it is possible to use lightning storms, information about which is accessible and available, as an effective predictor of the amount of cirrus clouds that form in the atmosphere. The researchers explain that lightning is created when a huge electric field is discharged at once and produces a very high temperature, up to 30,000 degrees Celsius, which causes the powerful flash of light we all know. As a result, the lightning emits light waves and radio waves that can be received even at a distance of thousands of kilometers, and thus the lightning can be tracked and mapped - in real time and over time.
In the current study, the researchers relied on lightning data collected all over the world over 6 years by NASA's LIS-ISS satellite that captures the light emitted by lightning. The researchers examined this data against cirrus cloud data (the partial information available today in combination with models that complete the picture), with the aim of checking whether there is a relationship between the number of lightning strikes per day, month, or year, and the amount of cirrus clouds that form in the atmosphere. The findings indicated a statistically significant match: the more thunderstorms there are, the more cirrus clouds there are. According to the researchers, this means that lightning - which is easy to detect and measure - can indeed be used as a reliable measure of the amount of cirrus clouds in the atmosphere, today and in the future.
Prof. Price: "We discovered that lightning storms are a central mechanism in the formation of cirrus clouds in the world, and that tracking lightning can explain more than 70% of the changes in the quantities of cirrus clouds in the world. The storms act as a kind of giant 'vacuum cleaner' that draws moisture from the face of the earth, mainly from the seas and the forests, and carries it to a great height. There, at an altitude of about 10 km, the moisture turns into thin ice crystals that form the plume clouds."
Prof. Price concludes: "In our research, we found a clear statistical relationship between the number of lightning storms that occur on Earth and the amount of cirrus clouds that form in the atmosphere on a global level. Many models now predict that climate change will lead to an increase in the phenomenon of lightning storms in the coming years, although not enough data has yet been collected to determine this with certainty. According to our research, if these hypotheses are correct, the increase in the number of lightning storms is expected to also cause an increase in the amount of cirrus clouds, which as mentioned constitute a kind of atmospheric blanket, and may further increase the process of global warming."
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