First News
Volume:8, Number:03
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COVER STORY
THIS WEEK

Lightning in the Sky

Bangladesh Meteorological Department data show that over 1,600 people have died from lightning strikes in Bangladesh since 2010, highest being in 2016

| Shova Rahman |

Humans have always been the playthings in the hand of Nature and helplessly watched diverse manifestations of its wrath throughout the time. Thunderstorms are an awful natural disaster that always associates with the inevitable risk of lightning strikes and woeful fatal consequences. Scientist are of the view that deforestation, agricultural- and labor-intensive economy, poor infrastructure, and climate variability are playing a potent role in increasing the lightning-related deaths and injuries in Bangladesh and many other countries.

According to non-government statistics, around 400 people in Bangladesh were killed by lightning strikes in 2016 alone while the figure was 186 in 2015, 210 in 2014 and 285 in 2013. The unusual increase of death by thunderbolts in recent years has prompted Bangladesh to add the lightning strike to the country's official list of disasters, which includes floods, cyclones, storm surges, earthquakes, drought, and riverbank erosion, among others.

What is lightning? By definition, lightning is a sudden electrostatic discharge during an electrical storm. This discharge allows charged regions in the atmosphere to temporarily equalize themselves, when they strike an object on the ground. Although lightning is always accompanied by the sound of thunder, distant lightning may be seen but be too far away for the thunder to be heard. Lightning can take one of three forms, which are defined by what is at the "end" of the branch channel (i.e. lightning bolt). For example,there is intra-cloud lighting (IC), which takes place between electrically charged regions of a cloud; cloud-to-cloud (CC) lighting, where it occurs between two functional thunderclouds; and cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning, which primarily originates in the thundercloud and terminates on an earth surface (but may also occur in the reverse direction).

Intra-cloud lightning most commonly occurs between the upper (or "anvil") portion and lower reaches of a given thunderstorm. In such instances, the observer may see only a flash of light without hearing any thunder. The term "heat-lightning" is often applied here, due to the association between locally experienced warmth and the distant lightning flashes. In the case of cloud-to-cloud lightning, the charge typically originates from beneath or within the anvil and scrambles through the upper cloud layers of a thunderstorm, normally generating a lightning bolt with multiple branches.

Cloud-to-ground (CG) is the best known type of lightning, though it is the third-most common – accounting for approximately 25 percent cases worldwide. In this case, the lightning takes the form of a discharge between a thundercloud and the ground, and is usually negative in polarity and initiated by a stepped branch moving down from the cloud. CG lightning is the best known because, unlike other forms of lightning, it terminates on a physical object (most often the earth), and, therefore, lends itself to being measured by instruments. In addition, it poses the greatest threat to life and property.

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Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya Disaster Management and Relief minister of Bangladesh

Bangladesh has a long history of natural disasters, but some new types of disaster are adding to the old. Lightning is one of them, which has taken a new turn in recent years. The intensity of lightning has increased in recent years due to climate change sparking a massive public fear. But people should not get panicked as our government is well aware of the new form of disaster. To cope with the problem, we have already declared lightning as a natural calamity. The disaster management and relief ministry has worked out different preventive measures including an early warning system to minimize lightning-related deaths. Moreover, the government has started giving financial assistance to families of the lightning victims as it does in case of storms, floods, and river erosions. A directive was also issued to officials concerned to include those families, who are economically insolvent, under the Vulnerable Group Feeding programs. Our ministry has undertaken a project to plant one million palm trees across Bangladesh, especially in haor areas in Sunamganj, Netrakona, Sylhet, and Brahmanbaria, as a preventive measure. We have instructed the administration to plant at least 2,500 trees in every upazila if the space is available. We expect that the number of death tolls by lightning strikes will go down in the near future if we can implement our plan.

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Gawher Nayeem Wahra Director of Brac’s Disaster Management and Climate Change program

Though the frequency of lightning has intensified in recent times in Bangladesh, there is no study here to find whether the climate change or any other reason is responsible for it. The intensity of lightning strikes during summer is increasing due to the growing environmental imbalance and climate change. We are drastically cutting down large trees and making people more vulnerable to lightning strikes. The good news is that the government has taken initiatives to plant trees across the country. But these trees will take five to seven years to grow to their full height. I suggested the government considered planting date palm trees as they grow faster than other palm trees. But, for the interim period, the government should make alternative plans to prevent lightning-caused injuries and deaths.

Lightning statistics in Bangladesh

While severe weather like hurricanes and tornadoes typically only hit particular areas of the globe, lightning can strike anywhere. And it does, a lot. A bolt of lightning flashes through the sky and hits the ground somewhere around the world about 100 times every second. That means eight million lightning strikes in the world in a single day.

Now-a-days, one of the most discussed issues of the country is the increased number of death from lightning strikes and thunderstorm. At least 81 people were killed by lightning strikes in 26 districts on May 12 and 13 alone in 2016 which is the highest number so far in Bangladesh. Bangladesh Disaster Preparedness Forum has compiled a database on lightning in Bangladesh. They found a total of 5,468 casualties, composed of 3,086 fatalities and 2,382 injuries between 1990 and mid-2016. The annual averages for Bangladesh are 114 fatalities and 89 injuries over the entire period. Weighing by population reveals a fatality rate of 0.92 per million people per year and an injury rate of 0.71. In contrast, the latest 6 years have a fatality rate of 1.6 and injury rate of 1.4. The rural portion of lightning fatalities is 93 percent. Most fatalities occurred between early morning and early evening. Through the year, more fatalities occur during the premonsoon season than the monsoon season.

They also found, the most recent 6 years have 251 fatalities per year as Bangladesh became much more populous in recent years. The majority of lightning-related deaths occurred to males. Farming is the major activity at the time of lightning fatalities followed by being inside a dwelling and returning home or walking around homesteads/ courtyards. According to Bangladesh meteorological office, prior to 1981, the country saw lightning strikes, on average, nine days each May. Since that time, the country has seen strikes an average of 12 days each May. On the other hand, the Bangladesh Meteorological Department data show that over 1,600 people have died from lightning strikes in Bangladesh since 2010. According to government statistics, a total of 217 people were killed by lightning strikes in 2016, surpassing all previous annual figures that ranged from 51 to 136 between 2010 and 2015. But experts say the real number was actually much higher, with one independent monitor saying 349 people were killed by lightning strikes in 2016.

Every year at least 117 people get killed by lightning strikes, according to a study by private organization between January 2010, and May 2015. The actual number is much higher as many people living in rural areas do not report deaths to the police. A study carried by the University of Berkeley in 2014 concluded that lightning strikes are expected to increase by 12 percent for every degree Celsius of warming, with a 50 percent rise in lightning expected by the end of the century.

Lightning statistics of other countries

Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country in South Asia to severe thunderstorms and lightning. But, South Africa, Nepal, Bhutan, and India’s West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, and Meghalaya states are also lightning- prone areas. In case of India, there is no concrete report on lightning deaths. But, scientists estimate the number is more than 3,000 per year. In the neighboring country Nepal, more than 100 people are killed by lightning every year. The Ministry of Home Affairs of Nepal which has been recording deaths caused by lightning since 2000 said lightning have killed 547 people in the last five years, which is higher than any other natural calamity barring April’s earthquake in 2015. However, in South Africa, about 260 people have been killed on average per year.

While the number of deaths is increasing in most of the country, it is, however, lowering in USA compared to the developing countries. But in 2016, the numbers exceed the previous year’s tolls and reached up to 40. In 2015, the number was 27. The highest tolls were 45 and 48, which were reported in 2007 and 2006, respectively. According to scientists, nearly 1,800 thunderstorms are happening at any moment around the world, which is 16 million a year.

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Samarendra Karmaker Former director of Bangladesh Meteorological Department

Minute particles are to blame for the increase in the number of thunderstorms hitting Bangladesh. The amount of aerosol has increased in the air, which is why lightning strikes are more frequent now. As thunderstorms are most common during the March- July period and are usually the most powerful in the afternoon, people – particularly those who work in open spaces –need to be aware of this and stay indoors for a couple of hours when a storm happens. People in urban areas are vulnerable to lightning as most buildings do not have a lightning prevention system, even though it is mandatory under the Bangladesh National Building Code. Some old buildings have lightning rods or objects to divert lightning strikes, but most of the new buildings do not have such an arrangement. Moreover, the meteorological office should initiate very short-r ange weather forecasting using the ‘nowcasting’ method. People should get updates every hour when a thunderstorm occurs. The meteorological office has a good radar coverage; they can use it for ‘nowcastin g’ and help people stay safe.

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Amanat Ullah Khan Professor of Geography and Environment at Dhaka University

Bangladesh has seen an alarming rise in deaths caused by lightning strikes in recent years. But yet the government has failed to devise an effective plan to help reduce the risk. It is high time to take some significant initiatives to reduce lightning-related deaths in the country. The government of Bangladesh can play a strategic role, not only by planting palm trees across the country but also by increasing priority based budget on the disaster management including lightning strikes and the authorities have to provide thunderstorm forecasting and lightning information in time to the concerned community through the meteorological office and through the relevant private sectors by using lightning detection system. Satellite TV channels must telecast documentaries and short films regarding the lightning strikes highlighting the dangers of lighting for human life and property, and what should be done during and after lightning strikes. Furthermore, more research-based activities are essential for reducing extreme vulnerabilities to lightning strikes in a country like Bangladesh.

Reasons behind increasing lightning

Rising global temperatures over the last century are driving a range of changing weather phenomenon, including stronger tropical cyclones, thunderstorms, floods, droughts, and heat waves. The increased numbers of lightning strikes may be due to global warming. Scientists say warmer conditions associated with climate change are causing more water evaporation from the land and the ocean, increasing clouds and rainfall and the potential for lightning storms.

Experts in Bangladesh attribute the rise in fatal lightning strikes to the country's population growth and deforestation, which has led to disappearance of many tall trees that earlier would have acted as shields against lightning strikes. Moreover, frequent use of metal farm equipment in open fields, using cell phone during the thunderstorms, standing near metal cell phone towers or electrical power towers, taking shelter under trees during electrical storms, and so on are also responsible for increase in lightning-related deaths in Bangladesh. However, some experts said they believed cell phone use also might be leading to more lightning fatalities, while others said that link was unlikely. While talking about lightning Dilara Zahid, assistant professor at the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies of University of Dhaka, said that the collision of updrafts and downdrafts creates cumulonimbus (storm cells with electric charge) and it produces lightning and thunder. “Usually it happens during summer, in the months between March and May, but as the world temperature is rising day by day, such collisions occur more frequeny these days,” she added.

When asked for suggestions on lightning, A.Q.M. Mahbub, an earth and environmental science professor at the University of Dhaka, said the United States, which once saw 200 to 300 lightning deaths a year, had managed to dramatically reduce that toll by making people aware of the risks of standing in open areas during thunderstorms. So, Bangladesh should follow the developed country to minimize the death toll.

Government is doing little to prevent rising toll

Bangladesh has seen an alarming rise in deaths caused by lightning strikes in recent years, but the government has failed to devise an effective plan to help reduce the risk yet. Against the backdrop of a record number of deaths from lightning strikes, the government has added lightning strikes to the list of natural disasters in 2016. Apart from that, there has not been any attempt either on the part of the government or any non-government organization to launch mass awareness campaigns for it. After including lightning strikes to the list of natural disasters, the authorities have started giving financial assistance to the families of the lightning strike’s victims as it does in case of storms, floods, and river erosions. The Disaster Management Ministry is now compensating lightning strike victims or their families with sums between BDT7,500 and BDT25,000.

It has already distributed BDT1.8 million among families of lightning victims last year. A directive was also issued to officials concerned to include those families, who are economically insolvent, under Vulnerable Group Feeding programs. Moreover, realizing the importance of trees, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief has undertaken a project to plant one million palm trees across Bangladesh, especially in the haor areas in Sunamganj, Netrakona, Sylhet, and Brahmanbaria, as a preventive measure. But the project is yet to get desired momentum. Furthermore, the ministry had taken an initiative to work out different preventive measures including an early warning system to minimize lightning-related deaths last year but unfortunately none knows about any progress in this field. While talking about the government initiatives regarding the issue, Shah Kamal, secretary of the Disaster Management Ministry, said that they have already started planting palm trees in rural areas in an effort to reduce the number of deaths due to lightning strikes.

Kamal said a similar program in Thailand had already yielded results, adding that a team of Bangladeshi officials had also travelled to Vietnam to study how authorities there are protecting farmers along the Mekong delta from lightning strikes. “The Science and Technology Ministry was asked to carry out a research on the cause of the frequent lightning causing high number of deaths,” he added. Former director of the nowdefunct SAARC Weather Research Centre, Sujit Kumar Debsharma, said the increase in the number of deaths was due to the destruction of tall trees like palm, which used to attract the lightning flashes. Now, with the rampant destruction of palm trees, lightning are striking human beings instead.

“Now, the authorities have taken initiatives to plant palm trees. This is definitely a good move by the government. The tree planting will ultimately help reduce the number of deaths, but the benefits would only be felt some way down the line as the tree will take more than two years to grow in required height,” Debsharma added.

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Dilara Zahid Assistant professor of Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, University of Dhaka

Among all South Asian countries, Bangladesh is the most vulnerable to severe thunderstorm and lightning strikes, which cause a huge loss of lives and property. But the number of causalities can be minimized by some techniques. There are two effective ways – non-structural and structural – to minimize causalities of lightning. The structural way is using 'Lightning Arrestor' both in residential and highrise industrial buildings, so that the current is diverted through the arrestor, in most cases, to earth. Besides, buildings, which have no such device to protect from lightning, should be brought under a retrofitting system. The non-structural way is to create awareness among the people. It is very tough to develop warnings to protect from lightning, as we know that the volt of lightning is very high (in some cases 3-5 million volts) and it comes at the speed of 220 kilometers per second. Yet, some quick steps can be effective in this regard. After seeing the flash, if we can manage a safe shelter within 30 seconds, we will be able to protect ourselves. We should keep in mind that we must avoid tall trees, open fields, boating, fishing, metal wires, electronic equipment, wire fences, water pipes, inflammable materials, corded phones, concrete floor or walls, and utility poles. Apart from these, unplugging expensive electronic equipment and securing outdoor objects that could explode or cause damage is a wise decision.

Md. Shah Alam Former director of Meteorological Department

Though Bangladesh experiences lightning strikes mainly during premonsoon period (April-May), climate change is contributing to its increased intensity. Rising temperature, erratic rainfall, and abnormal behavior of weather are contributing to the recurrence of thunderbolt strikes. The entire Dhaka and Sylhet divisions as well as Bogra, Pabna, Sirajganj, Comilla, and Jessore distrcts are prone to thunderbolt strikes and it mainly hits the areas in the afternoon, evening, and morning. The disaster management ministry should immediately launch an extensive mass awareness program across the country. The upazila parishads and the union parishads, must be mobilized to put up attractive posters in marketplaces, educational institutions, and other public places on the dos and don’ts during thunderstorms. We cannot stop the lighting strikes, but we can save lives by informing people what they should do during lightings.

How to be Safe

Experts suggested that people should not get panicked but keep in mind the appropriate steps one needs to take during lightning strikes and they need to check the weather forecast before participating in outdoor activities.

They have urged people to stay away from tall trees, electric pillars and towers, not to touch metals and corrugated iron, and take shelter under a concrete ceiling during thunderbolts. According to Sanaul Haque, duty forecasting officer at Dhaka meteorological office, rural people, especially farmers working in the open during thunderstorms, should lie down or sit down in their fields rather than taking shelter under a tree. “Generally when lightning strikes, it hits the top-most point in an area. So it is dangerous to stand in an open field during a thunderstorm,” he said. Awareness and safety measures can drastically reduce lightning fatalities. Following lightning safety measures can be taken depending on whether people are indoors and outdoors:

Outdoors safety measures. * Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges, or peaks. People should take shelter immediately inside a concrete building and farmers should flatten themselves to the ground when they meet any possibility of thunderstorm; * Avoid water during a thunderstorm. Immediately get out and away from ponds, lakes, and other water bodies’ * Never shelter under an isolated tree; * Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter; * Stay away from objects that conduct electricity like light post, power lines, etc., and electronic devices such as corded phones and computers while indoors because if a house gets struck by lightning, the charge can travel through the wiring system and cause a fire.

Indoors safety measures

Stay off corded phones, computers, and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity; * Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths, and faucets; * Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches; * Do not lie on concrete floors, and do not lean against concrete walls; * And wait until 30 minutes after a storm passes before going outside because a charge can linger in the air; Moreover, experts have suggested the following long-term and short-term plans to be safe from lightening: * The government should impose ban on cutting all kinds of tall trees in the villages and sub-urban areas. Initiatives should be taken to plant more and more tall trees like palm and coconuts; * Creating awareness on the lightning safety by organizing trainings, seminars, etc., at the union level; * Lightening safety guidelines should be included in the children's curriculum starting from the primary schools; * Lightening safety measures should be publicized through television, radios, and theaters; * Area-specific lightning forecast from the meteorological department can be disseminated by emails, websites, and mobile sms; * Every building should install the lightning protection system to save it from mechanical destruction caused by lightning effects.

M. Abdul Mannan Meteorologist at Meteorological Department

Lightning strikes mostly happen during Nor’westers, the seeds of which are sown over West Bengal in India and its adjoining areas. Their final stages mostly batter Bangladesh, causing a huge loss of lives and property every year. Nor’westers and lightning strikes go hand in hand, causing damages and devastations in Bangladesh. Ours is the most vulnerable country in South Asia to severe thunderstorms and lightning. I have a study done on lightning and I have found that on average, Nor’westers and lightning strikes happen 12 days in May, eight days in April, and four days in March. But the number of lightning strikes in May seem to be rising. Now, our main task is to create awareness amongst people and strengthening warning systems and network to reach the warning messages to people for bringing down the casualty caused by thunderbolt strikes. But, unfortunately our meteorological office is not currently equipped enough to forecast and issue early warnings for thunderbolts. We are taking an initiative to strengthen our lightning warning capacity so that early messages can be sent to people through a proper network.

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