Yulia Karra
September 21, 2023

Increased thunderstorm activity across the world may accelerate the climate crisis, according to a new study. 

Tel Aviv University researchers reached this conclusion after discovering a major statistical correlation between the number of thunderstorms and formation of cirrus clouds — high-altitude clouds made of ice crystals.

According to the study, cirrus clouds significantly impact the climate. These clouds act as a blanket that envelops the Earth’s atmosphere, increasing its temperature. 

The researchers emphasized the difficulty in obtaining accurate and comprehensive data on cirrus clouds, given their evasiveness from the human eye as well as from satellites. Moreover, these clouds form at very high altitude, far away from monitoring stations on the ground. 

The study is based on thunderstorm data collected worldwide over a period of six years by the NASA satellite ISS-LIS that detects the light emitted by lightning. 

“The light waves and radio waves emitted by the lightning discharge can be detected even thousands of kilometers away, enabling long-term monitoring and mapping of thunderstorms,” the scientists explain in their paper, recently published in Geophysical Research Letters of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

Increase in thunderstorms may speed up climate crisis 
Prof. Colin Price. Photo courtesy of Tel Aviv University

The researchers compared the ISS-LIS data with available statistics on cirrus clouds. They specifically compared lightning activity on a specific day, month or year, and the amount of cirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere that formed at the same time. 

The study was conducted by Prof. Colin Price from the department of geophysics at the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Anirban Guha and Joydeb Saha from Tripura University in India. 

Price said the study proves that cirrus clouds have the potential to predict future changes in the climate. 

“We discovered that thunderstorms are a major mechanism in the formation of cirrus clouds, and that lightning activity can account for over 70 percent of the changes in the quantity of cirrus clouds in the world,” he said.

“Thunderstorms act as an enormous ‘vacuum cleaner,’ lifting moisture from the surface of the planet, especially above oceans and forests, to higher levels of the atmosphere. There, at an altitude of about 10 kilometers [6.2 miles], this moisture turns into ice crystals that form the cirrus clouds.” 

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