Lightning kills soldier, injures two in Kashmir: Why this natural phenomenon occurs and what makes it so deadly

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On Friday morning, a soldier was killed and two injured when lightning struck their post along the Line of Control in Poonch district. The lightning struck Khalsa II post of the Indian Army's 40 Rashtriya Rifles in the Sawjian sector in which the soldier, Rifleman Mandeep Singh, died while two others were injured.

Earlier this month, 27 people were killed due to lightning strikes in West Bengal, and four passengers of a Mumbai-Kolkata flight in the same period were injured when the aircraft faced major turbulence due to lightning activities.

According to the Earth Networks India Lightning Report 2019, lightning is the number one killer in India as it kills over 2,000 people in India annually which is more than floods and cyclones.

Lightning-linked fatalities formed 33 percent of total deaths in natural disasters in 2019-20, according to a report published by the Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council (CROPC), a non-profit organisation that works with India Meteorological Department.

 

What is lightning and the causes behind it?

Lightning is an electrical discharge caused by imbalances between storm clouds and the ground, or within the clouds themselves. Most lightning occurs within the clouds and it is so hot that a flash can heat the air around it to temperatures five times hotter than the sun's surface. This heat causes surrounding air to rapidly expand and vibrate resulting in the deafening thunder that follows a lightning flash.

While the inter-cloud or intracloud lightning is visible and harmless, the cloud to ground lightning is harmful as the 'high electric voltage and electric current' leads to electrocution. A cloud-to-ground flash consists of at least one cloud-to-ground stroke and is dangerous to life and property.

The National Weather Service of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mentions five ways of lightning that strike people. They are: direct strike, side flash, ground current, conduction and streamers.

In order to trigger lightning, the presence of a cloud is essential. When the ground is hot, it heats the air above it. This warm air rises, the water vapour cools and forms a cloud.

When air continues to rise, the cloud gets bigger and on the top of the clouds, where the temperature is below freezing, the water vapour turns into ice. Thus, the cloud becomes a thundercloud with lots of small bits of ice bump into each other as they move around. All these collisions cause a build-up of electrical charge and at last, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges.

Following this, the smaller ice particles lose an electron and gain a positive charge during a collision while the hail gains an electron and a negative charge. This causes the hail to fall towards the bottom of the cloud due to weight difference and the smaller ice particles collect at the top generating both negative and positive charge. When there is a significant charge difference builds up, there is a rapid discharge of electricity to correct the imbalance resulting in lightning.

Why is India vulnerable to lightning?

Although most of the regions in India experience lightning in different seasons, it is during the monsoon season, which normally lasts from June to September, that the country becomes more vulnerable to lightning.

The phenomenon occurs mostly in hilly regions over India throughout the year but the chances of casualty are higher in the plain areas because of population density. According to the Earth Networks India Lightning Report 2019, the country received 18,026 dangerous thunderstorm alerts during 2019.

West Bengal and Jharkhand record the highest flash densities, followed by Meghalaya and Odisha, however, in 2019, Odisha experienced 10,85,629 more total lightning strikes than second-place West Bengal, the report said.

A study titled The major lightning regions and associated casualties over India by Pramod Kumar Yadava, Manish Soni, Sunita Verma1, Harshbardhan Kumar, Ajay Sharma and Swagata Payra revealed that most lightning phenomena occur during the pre-monsoon period over the northeast region of India and during the winter period, the lightning dominates over the northern parts of India such as Jammu and Kashmir.

Most lightning-dominant regions over India are Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Tripura throughout the year while Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Daman and Diu and Lakshadweep have a lower frequency of lightning.

From 1998 to 2013, the total numbers of deaths attributed to nature are 317,453, out of which 9.85 percent were due to lightning.

How to protect yourself against lightning?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says when thunder roars, go indoors. In case someone is caught in open ground, the first thing is to immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges, or peaks.

Lying flat on the ground as the contact with the ground should be minimal. It has completely advised against sheltering under an isolated tree or using a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter. Even being in water bodies is also not safe. All objects that conduct electricity should be avoided.

 

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