What’s behind killer lightning strikes which haunt Marathawada

Climate scientists say the topography of the region is responsible for the frequent lightning incidents as it allows the formation of cumulonimbus clouds or thunderclouds, which in turn trigger the ‘cloud-to-ground,’ a fatal type of lightning in the region

Representative photo: iStock

Seven people died in separate lightning-related incidents in Maharashtra’s Marathawada region over a span of five days, officials of the India Meteorological Department had said on Monday (June 13).

A primary report released by the Divisional Commissioner’s office said that the incidents occurred between June 8 and June 12 across four districts in the region. Three deaths due to lightning occurred in Jalna district, followed by two in Aurangabad and one each in Latur and Osmanabad.

Apart from the human fatalities, 18 milking and non-milking animals were also killed in the lightning incidents.

This is not the first time that Marathawada has witnessed deaths due to lightning strikes.
In the 24-hour period between May 3 and May 4 this year, a total of 10 people were killed in lightning strikes in the region. A bike-borne man and his nephew were among the casualties.

In September last year, the state’s disaster management department had said that 13 people had died due to heavy rains and lightning strikes in different parts of Maharashtra, while 136 others had received injuries. Twelve of these deaths were reported from Marathawada and its adjoining Vidarbha region. The other casualty occurred in Nashik.

Topography’s the culprit

Mahesh Palawat, vice-president (Meteorology and Climate Change) at Skymet Weather, says topography is one of the reasons behind the frequent deaths due to lightning strikes in Marathawada.

“As it is an open area, it heats up faster,” he told The Federal. “Heatwave conditions are more intense over this area because the sun travels up to 23 1/2 degrees of latitude—which is the Tropic of Cancer. It passes through the Vidarbha region. This is why the hottest regions in the country are the western parts of Rajasthan and south Madhya Pradesh followed by Vidarbha and Marathwada.

Also read: Monsoons in India normal this year; 99% rainfall expected

However, no pre-monsoon activity occurs in Rajasthan during this time of the year. But, during April-June, pre-monsoon activity starts over Marathwada and once again during October when the monsoon returns,” he added.

Palawat said that when temperatures are high and the humidity level increases due to reasons such as the development of a trough, cyclonic circulation, or any other weather system over the Arabian Sea and/or Bay of Bengal; and reach over central parts of the country, the air becomes warm and lighter and tends to ascend.

“While ascending, it (the air) expands and cools down,” he said. “When the temperature starts reducing, the moisture that is available in the air starts melting and leads to the formation of clouds.”

“Since the temperatures are very high, a trend is seen where the hot air continues to rise up to a height of 10-12 km above ground level—leading to the formation of Cumulonimbus clouds—commonly known as thunderclouds. When these clouds develop, mostly during the afternoon hours in the pre-monsoon season…each of them (cloud) is capable of triggering intense lightning strikes as well as intense thunderstorms and thundershowers. In northern states like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, such clouds also lead to dust storms,” he added.

Palawat says the lightning seen in Marathwada during the pre-monsoon season is primarily “cloud-to-ground type” which takes place when lightning occurs between the base of the cumulonimbus cloud and the ground. “This type of lighting is fatal,” he said, adding that it occurs due to intense heating of the region and the vertically-developed clouds.

Absence of forecast mechanism, awareness

The majority of victims who fall prey to lightning strikes are farmers and labourers working in open fields, says Palawat.

“The lightning strikes and thunderstorms occur over areas like Marathwada and Vidarbha in the afternoon hours, between 2-3 PM and continue up to the early night. This is the time when people are out in the field or are working outdoors.”

He says another reason why farmers and labourers fall prey to lightning strikes is the absence of awareness or alerting system at the gram panachayat level that should alert residents about possible thunderstorms and lightning and provide precautionary tips to protect themselves during the natural calamity.

Speaking with The Federal, an IMD scientist said, “When monsoon advancement takes place, the first burst of it is usually seen in the form of thunderstorm activity. Marathwada is more prone to lightning and thunder actives as compared to the Konkan region because the region is relatively drier, which is why more lightning and thunderstorms occur here. A higher level of interaction between moist and dry air takes place here. When we give out the thunder and lightning forecast, we also say what type of precaution to take against this.”

However, IMD began issuing lightning forecasts only three years ago. In 2019, an initiative called Lightning India Resilient Campaign was launched to raise awareness in lightning-prone villages with the aim to reduce casualties in these regions.

Protection and prevention measures

“People shouldn’t roam outdoors when there is a lightning and thunder forecast,” said the scientist, adding that people should most definitely not take shelter under a single, large tree in an open area. He says doing so is utterly dangerous as a live tree is a conductor of electricity due to the water present in it.

Palawat gives a similar warning.  “Lightning usually strikes the tallest object in the vicinity,” he said. “If you happen to find yourself in the open during such weather conditions, it is safer to lie down on the ground or crouch under a structure. Take shelter in a pukka house that has earthing or a lightning arrester.”

According to official government data, lightning strikes have killed more than 100,000 people in the country between 1967 and 2019 — more than a third of fatalities caused by natural hazards during this period.

 Also read: NASA’s new mission to know why lightning strikes & storm intensity are up

Around 2,500 people die due to lightning strikes in India each year. This is in contrast to just 45 such deaths in the United States annually.

Driven primarily by global warming, lightning strikes in India are also becoming more frequent. Between April 2020 and March 2021, India recorded around 19 million lightning strikes— a 34 per cent rise from the previous year.