Strange Thunderstorms Hitting the Arctic Are Getting Longer

The longest thunderstorm in the history of Arctic observation was recorded in July 2022—marking an increase in extreme weather activity in a region that is generally devoid of such events.

This storm was reported by scientists from the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute at the Russian hydrometeorological observatory on the Severnaya Zemlya peninsula, just north of Siberia. Thunderstorms are usually concentrated in the warmer parts of the planet so it is surprising to see one of this duration so near the North Pole.

"The recipe for thunderstorms calls for warm, moist air—neither of which are common in the Arctic," Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, told Newsweek. "Thunderstorms in the Arctic are typically weaker than in areas farther south because the air is cooler and contains less moisture, so if a thunderstorm does form, it has less fuel to work with."

Dark clouds above Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon Iceland
Dark clouds above the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in Iceland. Thunderstorms are unusual in the Arctic because they require moist, warm conditions to form. Getty

Thunderstorms occur when warm, moist air rises into cooler air and condenses into towering cumulus clouds. "The life of a thunderstorm varies greatly from minutes to hours," Francis said. "Because Arctic thunderstorms are generally weaker, they also tend to last for a shorter time."

The National Weather Service estimates that a typical thunderstorm will last for an average of about 30 minutes. The aforementioned Arctic storm in July was nearly double that, clocking in at 55 minutes.

According to the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute February press release, the first thunderstorm recorded in this region by this observatory was recorded in June 2019. It lasted 40 minutes. In 2021, two storms were reported, one lasting 40 minutes and the other 25 minutes. In isolation, we cannot draw any conclusions about the frequency of thunderstorms from this data alone. However, these are not the only reports of an increasingly stormy Arctic.

A study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in 2021 found that, between 2010 and 2020, the number of lightning strokes within the Arctic circle "increased dramatically." Most of this increase occurred in latitudes within a 690-mile radius of the North Pole. A report from Finnish weather observation firm, Vaisala, found that, in 2021, nearly twice as much lightning was detected within that radius than in the previous nine years combined.

This increase in extreme weather is likely due to the rapid atmospheric changes that have occurred in the Arctic in recent decades. "The Arctic is warming three to four times faster than the globe as a whole, and there is about 4 percent more water vapor in the atmosphere on average globally. This warming and increased moisture are supplying two key ingredients for thunderstorm formation," said Francis.

Polar bears in melting sea ice
Polar bears struggle with the melting sea ice. The Arctic is warming three to our times faster than the rest of the Earth. avstraliavasin/Getty

As the Arctic has warmed, its summer sea ice has shrunk by 13 percent per decade since 1979, according to data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. This melting ice has also likely contributed to the unusual weather patterns in the region: "As sea ice disappears and as the high-latitude land areas warm more rapidly in spring, the atmosphere becomes more unstable, allowing bubbles of warm air to rise more easily, which can trigger thunderstorms," Francis said.

And, as more ice melts, we will see more sea level rise, enhanced heat absorption due to the reduced reflectance of snow cover, and accelerated permafrost thaw—which will release further greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

More thunderstorms in the Arctic might also increase the risk of wildfires in far-north areas due to an increase in lightning strikes. "Longer dry periods cause vegetation to become drier, so when a fire does start, it has more fuel to burn," Francis said.

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