Scientists say that climate change is increasing the likelihood of lightning strikes across the United States, after lightning struck at a square near the White House, leaving two people dead and two others in critical condition.
The hot, humid conditions in Washington, DC, on Thursday were primed for electricity.
Air temperatures topped out at 94° Fahrenheit (34° Celsius) – or 5F (3C) higher than the 30-year normal maximum temperature, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
More heat can draw more moisture into the atmosphere, while also encouraging rapid updraft – two key factors for charged particles, which lead to lightning.
A key study released in 2014 in the journal Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50% in this century in the United States, with each 1C (1.8F) of warming translating into a 12% rise in the number of lightning strikes.
Fast-warming Alaska has seen a 17% rise in lightning activity since the cooler 1980s.
And in typically dry California, a siege of some 14,000 lightning strikes during August 2020 sparked some of the state’s biggest wildfires on record.
Beyond the United States, there is evidence that lightning strikes are also shooting up in India.
However, even as lightning strikes increase, being hit by one is still extremely rare in the United States, experts say.
Roughly 40mn lightning bolts touch down in the country every year, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – with the odds of being struck less than one in a million.
Among those who are hit, about 90% survive the ordeal, the CDC says.
The country counted 444 deaths from lightning strikes from 2006 through 2021.
Only about 10% of people struck by lightning are killed – typically from cardiac arrest – but many are left with lasting disability including neurological damage.
The two men and two women struck by lightning on Thursday while visiting Washington’s Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, were among the unlucky few – struck by a bolt that hit the ground during a violent, afternoon thunderstorm.
The lightning hit near a tree that stands just yards away from the fence that surrounds the presidential residence and offices.
All four victims sustained critical, life-threatening injuries, and were taken to area hospitals, where two later died, authorities said.
The deceased were in their late seventies.
“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life,” the White House said in a statement yesterday. “Our hearts are with the families who lost loved ones, and we are praying for those still fighting for their lives.”
“We are praying for those still fighting for their lives,” added Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement.
US Secret Service and park police rushed to help the four after witnessing the strike, fire and emergency services department spokesman Vito Maggiolo said in a statement posted on social media.
The victims had apparently sought shelter from the storm under one of the trees in the park.
“Trees are not safe places,” Maggiolo told the Washington Post. “Anybody that goes to seek shelter under a tree, that’s a very dangerous place to be.”
Photos posted by the department on social media showed multiple ambulances and at least one fire truck with flashing lights working at the scene.
Witness David Root told NBC that he heard a “horrific boom”.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he was quoted as saying. “Was surreal. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life.”
He said he had also been sheltering beneath a tree when he saw the lightning strike across the park.
The people “weren’t moving”, he said, so he and others ran over to give help.
Lafayette Square is often crowded with visitors, especially in the summer months.
Because heat and moisture are often needed to make lightning, most strikes happen in the summer.
In the United States, the populous, subtropical state of Florida sees the most people killed by lightning.
Lightning strikes a tree in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, killing two people and injuring two others, during a thunderstorm as seen in this framegrab from a Reuters TV video camera mounted on a nearby rooftop.