April 5 (UPI) -- Electrical storms are rare at high latitudes, but scientists expect lightning strikes in the Arctic to happen more frequently as the planet warms.
In a new study, scientists analyzed trends in the frequency of lightning strikes at latitudes above 65 degrees North over the last decade.
In 2010, there were 18,000 summertime strikes. Last year, 150,000 bolts struck the Arctic.
Over the same time period, between 2010 and 2020, Arctic temperatures increased by an average of 0.3 degrees Celsius.
After analyzing the link between rising temperature and lightning strikes, researchers extrapolated lightning strike trends through the end of the century. Their models showed lightning strikes are likely to increase by 100 percent by 2100.
Scientists detailed their predictions in a new paper, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.
"We projected how lightning in high-latitude boreal forests and Arctic tundra regions will change across North America and Eurasia," lead study author Yang Chen said in a press release.
"The size of the lightning response surprised us because expected changes at mid-latitudes are much smaller," said Chen, a research scientist at the University of California, Irvine.
Researchers worry an increase in Arctic lightning could fuel a dangerous global warming feedback loop, as an increase in lightning frequency is likely to spark more wildfires.
In fact, it was the record setting fire seasons observed across the Arctic over the last half-decade that first inspired scientists to examine lightning strike data.
When Arctic tundra burns, carbon that's remained trapped in the underlying permafrost for thousands of years can escape into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.
Thawing permafrost also yields increases in the breakdown of organic matter, a process that produces methane, another greenhouse gas.
Additionally, Arctic wildfires destroy vital habitat, undermining the health of Arctic tundra ecosystems.
In 2019, lightning struck within 300 miles of the North Pole, a record -- and the latest research suggests it's a record that won't last for long.
"This phenomenon is very sporadic, and it's very difficult to measure accurately over long time periods," said co-author James Randerson, a professor at UCI. "It's so rare to have lightning above the Arctic Circle."