Canada's Wildfires Sparked Over 710,000 Lightning Events In 15 Hours

Stock image of lightning over the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. Image credit: 2009fotofriends/Shutterstock.com

The baking temperatures currently cooking up Canada are fuelling some truly hellish wildfire behavior that’s leaving meteorologists stunned. 

With the record temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia has been experiencing a growing number of wildfires. The record heat and widespread wildfires are pairing up to form a type of cumulonimbus cloud that forms above a source of heat, known as Cumulonimbus flammagenitus. In turn, these stormy clouds are pumping out an intense shower of lightning strikes, which could potentially further fuel the wildfires. 

In other words, it’s a vicious circle: the wildfires are helping to generate a type of cloud that produces lightning, which is likely sparking more wildfires and so on. 

Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist at Vaisala, tweeted that the North American Lightning Detection Network sensed 710,177 lightning events across British Columbia and northwestern Alberta in the space of just 15 hours between the afternoon of June 30 and the early morning of July 1.

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Of these lightning events, 112,803 were cloud-to-ground lightning bolts, while 597,314 were in-cloud pulses, meaning the strikes didn't hit the ground. Vagasky estimates that this is around 5 percent of Canada's annual lightning in just 0.2 percent of the year.

“I've watched a lot of wildfire-associated pyroconvective events during the satellite era, and I think this might be the singularly most extreme I've ever seen," tweeted Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. "This is a literal firestorm, producing *thousands* of lightning strikes and almost certainly countless new fires."

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Canada set a record temperature of 47.9°C (118°F) on Monday, June 28. This temperature was recorded in the small town of Lytton northeast of Vancouver. Days later, 90 percent of the town had been burned down or damaged by wildfires. As of June 02, the British Columbia Wildfire Service listed 78 active wildfires of note. 

This slice of North America is typically associated with milder weather, so the freak weather has come as a shock to the area's residents and infrastructure. While the exact number of deaths is unclear, at least 486 sudden deaths were reported over five days during British Columbia’s unprecedented heatwave, said to be a 195 percent increase over normal years. South of the border in Portland, Oregon, streetcar services were suspended for three days after soaring temperatures melted power lines and warped overhead wires.

The relentless heat over parts of the Pacific Northwest has largely been driven by a "heat dome" that's trapped heat over parts of Canada and the US. While temperatures have started to ease in coastal areas, inland regions are being offered very little respite. 


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