Rare lightning strikes near North Pole spark fears of warming Arctic

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Weather analysts recorded several lightning strikes close to the North Pole over the weekend, in a rare meteorological event that points to a rapidly warming Arctic climate.

Lightning strikes are extremely unusual in the high Arctic, where the air is normally too cold and dry for major storm clouds to form. That’s changed this summer amid record-breaking temperatures and a major decline in the amount of once-permanent sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean.

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The National Weather Service in Alaska says it recorded several lighting strikes approximately 483 kilometres away from the North Pole on Saturday night, over the Arctic Ocean.

“This is one of the furthest north lighting strikes in Alaska forecaster memory,” the National Weather Service in Fairbanks said in a statement.

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Climate scientist Daniel Swain described the lightning strikes as “pretty wild” in a series of tweets on Sunday.

“It’s very hard to get deep convective clouds in the polar regions (especially in the vicinity of Arctic Ocean waters that used to be ice-covered, even in summer),” he tweeted.

He added that lightning above the Arctic Circle isn’t too rare because it occurs sometimes in Alaska and northern Siberia, but he says lightning within 500 kilometres of the North Pole is “quite something.”

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Arctic ice has been melting at an unprecedented rate this summer, particularly in Greenland, where ancient ice sheets are rapidly disappearing.

Disappearing sea ice creates more favourable conditions for thunderstorms, because it leaves more water exposed to the sun, National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Young said.

“The probability of this kind of event occurring would increase as the sea ice extent retreats farther and farther north in the summertime,” Young told Wired.

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Heat waves and weather events have become more frequent and intense around the world due to climate change, according to Mike Sparrow, a spokesperson for the UN World Meteorological Organization.

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“When people talk about the average global temperature increasing by a little more than 1 degree (Celsius), that’s not a huge amount to notice if you’re sitting in Hamburg or London, but that’s a global average and it’s much greater in the polar regions,” Sparrow told The Associated Press earlier this month.

Greenland and Siberia are also dealing with an unusually high number of Arctic wildfires.

With files from The Associated Press