Lightning due to scattered rains has caused the deaths of at least 60 people in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh on Sunday. Out of these, 11 people died taking selfies at Amer Fort near Jaipur, Rajasthan when lightning struck them. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) says that thunderstorms supplemented with lightning strikes are a major reason for deaths due to natural disasters in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted expressing sympathies for the dead and the Prime Minister Office announced a compensation of 2 lakhs for the deceaseds’ families from the PM relief fund. UP and Rajasthan’s state governments also declared compensations of ₹ 5 lakh for the same. Uttar Pradesh reported 41 deaths on Sunday while 14 people died in Prayagraj.
Out of these, most deaths occurred in the rural region of UP and most of them included women and children. The UP Relief Commissioner Ranvir Prasad stated in an interview by news agency ANI, “As per info available, 41 people died due to lightning strikes across 16 districts, 30 injured. ₹ 4 Lakhs ex-gratia each will be provided to kin of the deceased. All the injured will get proper medical treatment. 250 animals died, 20 injured.” The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath has also declared compensations for people who lost their livestock in the rain-affected regions of the state. Lightning strikes have killed approximately 2,000 people each year since 2004 in the country. This is twice the number of killings that happened due to the same since the late 1960s, as the India Meteorological Department (IMD) quoted in June in one of the awareness workshops on lightning strikes.
In the year 2019, there were 2,876 deaths due to lightning while the number was less than 1500 annually between the years 1968 and 2004. Although a short period in the mid saw a high number of deaths due to lightning, the trend overall remained unhindered. As for the year 2020, the disaster management committee of the Ministry of Home Affairs is yet to update the data of deaths. In Rajasthan, eleven people were killed due to lightning strikes as they were visiting Amer Fort near Jaipur and taking photos from the top of a watchtower before the 12th-century monument. The lighting there was so intimidating and powerful(caught on mobile cameras) that many people jumped off the tower in panic and were injured. There were a total of 27 tourists on that watchtower as well as the fort wall when this tragic incident occurred.
Aside from the incident at Amer Fort, Rajasthan reported nine similar deaths due to lightning on Sunday out of which, seven were children. Generally, during pre-monsoon or when monsoon onset is on its verge in UP, Bihar, and the surrounding states; lightning strikes hit harder with higher frequency are high in frequency. This happens because the surface temperature increases and so does the moisture level, which paves way for thunder clouds. “At least 23 people died and 25 injured due to lightning strikes in the State till July 11,” the Joint Secretary of Rajasthan Disaster Management said as reported by ANI. The Southwest Monsoon has not yet reached the northern part of India so it hasn’t touched Delhi and its surrounding regions like Haryana, western Rajasthan, and parts of west Uttar Pradesh.
“The conditions continue to remain favorable for further advance of southwest monsoon over Delhi, remaining parts of west Uttar Pradesh, some more parts of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan during the next 24 hours,” the India Meteorological Department or IMD stated recently in a press release. This forecast came late as many instances had already happened and the weather department wronged the weather forecasts for Delhi along with its nearby regions as high and dry. Though experts say that IMD’s completely unreliable monsoon forecast for the northern area of the country is a result of the pandemonium caused by the outcomes of the interactions between the easterly and westerly winds. Moreover, these lightning death numbers are gonna grow in the future. “Climate projections indicate that temperature and moisture will increase further in future,” Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist, India Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) told the media.
“An assessment of long-term changes in mortalities due to extreme weather events in India: A study of 50 years’ data”, a paper issued under the Elsevier journal on weather and climate extremes by the ministry of earth sciences for the span of 1970–2019, explains that the mortality rate of tropical cyclones lessened by 94% in the past 20 years, while for heatwaves and lightning, it increased by 62.2% and 52.8%, respectively. In 2021 though, many cases of huge lightning strikes and associated deaths have come up in mid-July owing to the extended monsoon “break” when surface temperatures were very high in the absence of rain. “There has been around a ten-day break in monsoon. There has been significant surface heating during this period. As the monsoon is reviving, moisture levels have also increased.
This is the most favorable condition for the development of thunder clouds and collision of ice particles which leads to charging and lightning strikes,” explained SD Pawar, project director, Thunderstorm Dynamics, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune. He said that thunder clouds need heat and moisture to develop. They need to be profound too, that is, approx nine to ten km for the collision of ice particles to occur. Pawar also added that the elevation in lightning strikes is related to the ongoing climate crisis. “Both surface temperature and moisture levels have increased significantly in recent years. Urbanization leading to loss of tree cover also contributes to a rise in surface temperature. We think the two have mainly contributed to the rise in the incidence of lightning. The rise in deaths due to lightning can be because more people are outdoors and possibly exposed to lightning in recent years.”
The director-general of IMD agreed to it saying, “The use of electrical appliances has also increased significantly in the past 30 years, from mobile phones to TVs to power lines. Lightning can interfere with their electromagnetic field.” This was discussed in a workshop conducted by IMD last month. The IMD-developed Damini app gives users area-specific lightning warnings, but it’s not of much use as lightning is a remarkably localized phenomenon and the warnings usually don’t touch the last mile. NWS tells us that no outdoor location is safe when lightning hits your area so it is best to stay indoors. When people hear the loud thunder they should head indoors as the sound of thunder implies that they are within striking distance of the lightning. Imd has also established a lightning forecast system in India which provides color-coded warnings for lightning events.
They also conduct a regular lightning forecast and ‘nowcasts’ are circulated for every three hours on days where lightning activity is higher than usual. It is often seen that people in panic hide under trees but fall under the reign of lightning strikes. This is because of a phenomenon called ‘side flash’, which befalls when lightning hits a taller object like a tree near a person, and a part of the overwhelming current shifts from the object to that person. We can prevent side flashes by standing more than two feet away from any tall objects so lightning won’t get transferred to us. India’s first Annual Lightning Report (2019-2020) discovered that standing under a tree was, in fact, the top cause of lightning deaths in India, and it showed that around 71 percent of the lightning deaths occurred because of this very mistake, while 25 percent were caused by a direct hit of lightning and other 4 percent because of indirect exposure.