Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Iced Lightning - Lightning Strikes at 80 North

On July 8 and 9, 2016 the National Weather Service published special weather statements regarding the potential for thunderstorms in Barrow, Alaska and on the North Slope. There was not a thunderstorm reported in the media, although on July 10, 2016 there was a cloud to ground strike 15 miles from Barrow.

Curious, I decided to research the background of Arctic Coast or Arctic Ocean thunderstorms, starting with Barrow and Wainwright, Alaska.

Here's what I found, and what came at the end made my jaw drop in regard to lightning strikes and thunderstorms over the Arctic Sea Ice - and the massive changes in the last 16 years of increasing thunderstorm activity over the Arctic Ocean.

Historical Climatology

The NOAA Center for Environmental Information hosts the Alaska Climatological reports from 1915 to 2015. The following observations of thunder or thunderstorms come from those reports.
See: http://catalog.northslope.org/catalogs/4390-climatological-data-alaska

July 8, 1921, Thunder was heard at Barrow, Alaska for the first time in many years. The prior event was not dated.
July 3, 1931, Thunder was heard again in Barrow Alaska.
July 8 and 12, 1943: Thunderstorms occurred in Wainwright, Alaska, about 86 miles southwest of Barrow, on the Arctic Ocean, but no report from Barrow.
July 16, 1950: Wainwright, AK observed a thunderstorm south of the weather station and the report states this is "the farthest north thunderstorm ever reported in the Alaskan Territory."
July 4, 1952, Wainwright, AK again observed thunder.
July 22, 1989, Finally, after many years, Barrow experienced thundershowers.
July 18, 1995, Barrow, after six years, experienced thundershowers.
June 20, 2000, Barrow had a thunderstorm that received international attention and was misrepresented as the first thunderstorm at Barrow in the most of the media.

The actual NOAA report states:

Thundershowers moved through Barrow, AK on the Arctic coast on the 20th. A rare event- a thunderstorm moved through the Barrow area on the 20th and dropped 0.16 inches of rain in just a couple minutes. Many calls were received at the weather office from people who have just witnessed their first thunderstorm and lightning display ..and what a display it was. According to calls received, Barrow had one of the most exciting events they had ever seen since it was the first for most residents. Thunderstorms and lightning are extremely rare on the north coast of Alaska. This is only the third time a thunderstorm has occurred in Barrow since 1978. The other two events were on July 18, 1995 and July 22, 1989.  
See: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/extremes/2000/june/extremes0600.html

Note, the 2000 statement that thunderstorms and lightning were extremely rare on the north coast of Alaska, let alone having thunderstorms over Arctic Ocean sea ice! The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center did have a lightning detection network at the time, but without North Slope sensors. Who thought tundra would really burn?See: http://afsmaps.blm.gov/imf/imf.jsp?site=lightning

A 2012 article captured recollections of this event. It was recalled as "thunderclaps directly over Barrow in 2000 that sent dogs scurrying under beds and frightened children who had never seen a thunderstorm. On that day, rain poured heavily for a community that gets little of it, and phones lit up at the local National Weather Service office, with residents wanting to know what was going on.

"It was early, early in the morning," recalled Dave Anderson, head meteorologist in the city of 4,400. "Everyone was in bed, and people got a little concerned."

The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center strikes recorded during June and early July , 2000 are below, minus the Barrow storm strikes.

June 14-28, 2000

June 28-July 12, 2000
Source: Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, Historical Lightning

A November 15, 2000 article by ABC titled  Arctic Thunderstorms: New Signs of Warming,  captured how unusual and concerning this new development was to Canadian Arctic communities.  

"Electric storms in the upper Arctic are among the evidence of climate change being reported in a new study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba..... 

The study focused on knowledge among Inuits of changes in the Arctic environment. Researchers spent a year visiting Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the Northwest Territories, accompanying Inuit people on their hunting and fishing trips and recording their observations.

“When I was a child, I never heard thunder or saw lightning, but in the last few years we’ve had thunder and lightning,” Rosemarie Kuptana of Sachs Harbour, 1,440 miles north of Vancouver, said Tuesday. “The animals really don’t know what to do because they’ve never experienced this kind of phenomenon.”
Source: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=119796&page=1

By 2001, Alaska installed lightning detectors on the Arctic Ocean at Barrow, giving us a more complete historical lightning record for the North Slope. 

What follows are the recorded cloud to ground lightning strikes in the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center Historical Lightning database. We are going to mostly compare the June 28-July 12 maps from 2001-2016 - to visualise what climate change has done through sea ice melt, early snow melt, and increasing Arctic temperatures in the Alaskan and Canadian far North. See: http://afsmaps.blm.gov/imf/imf.jsp?site=lightning

June 28 to July 12, 2001, depicts more North Slope lightning and one single strike east-northeast of Barrow, over the ice - a premonition of what was to come. Each blue line is a lightning strike.

June 28 to July 12, 2002, reveals almost no strikes north of the Brooks Range, and none in the Arctic Ocean.

June 28 to July 12, 2003, depicts dramatic change with thunderstorms producing hundreds of lightning strikes within a hundred miles of shore off the Alaskan coast.

June 28 to July 12, 2004, brings the next reports of a thunderstorm on July 3rd at Barrow, with strikes across the Alaskan North Slope and into the coastal Arctic Ocean.

June 28 to July 12, 2005, reveals a return to minimal North Slope lightning or thunderstorm activity.

June 28 to July 12, 2006, returned to the "old" normal of the past, of few lightning strikes or thunderstorms north of the Brooks Range.

June 28 to July 12, 2007, saw a continuation of the "old" normal, with few strikes or convection activity on the North Slope, and none in the Arctic Ocean.

June 28 to July 12, 2008, revealed the first resurgence of lightning in the Arctic Ocean, and more thunderstorm activity on the North Slope, perhaps an initial link to heating and sea ice loss.

June 28 to July 12, 2009, is a return to the historical pattern, with no lightning activity in Arctic Ocean for these dates.

June 28 to July 12, 2010, preserves the past, except for a few strikes off the eastern Alaska coast.

June 28 to July 12, 2011, is quieter than the prior year, except for two strikes in the Arctic Ocean, not far from the Alaskan coast.

The first sign of the future of lightning storm convection over Arctic sea ice is apparent in the June 16 to 30, 2012 image. The path of lightning strikes goes heavy and deep over open Arctic Ocean, then the ice pack.

June 28 to July 12, 2012, saw a muted repeat of the 2000 and 2004 events. The expansion and replacement of the Alaska lightning detection network in July, 2012, brought in the capacity to measure more lightning strikes, and included Arctic Canada for the first time.

July 15, 2012 brought another thunderstorm near Barrow. The NWS reported, 

556 PM AKDT SUN JUL 15 2012



Dave Anderson, the Barrow meterologist, said, "rain cloaked the lightning so flashes couldn't be seen very well, Anderson said. But lightning strikes were recorded about 30 miles southeast of Barrow over Dease Inlet, according to the Alaska Fire Services Lightning Detection NetworkThe noise was faint. "My wife and I were at home," said Anderson. "We could barely hear the thunder."

Another local resident, Jana Harcharek, said that she'd only seen lightning twice from Barrow, where she's lived her entire life. "It's rather bizarre," said Harcharek, who refused to share her age. "Rather than running in, we're running outside to see it."

One sobering note. The high temperature that day. It was 65 F in Barrow, warmer than Anchorage!

June 28 to July 12, 2013, brings more activity over the Arctic Ocean, with strikes as far out as 73N over 150 miles from shore.

June 28 to July 12, 2014, continues the pattern of increasing North Slope and Arctic Ocean strikes with further concentration over areas with low ice ocean. Much of the lightning activity was over open water as the sea ice melted.

The EOSDIS, Worldview July 9, 2014 image helps visualize the Arctic melt and storm relationship.

June 28 to July 12, 2015, represents the first major shift in the Arctic Ocean paradigm, with lightning strikes ending up in places unimaginable in 2000. A whole cluster of thunderstorms penetrated deep into the ice pack, all the way to 80N. It can be surmised that the storms contributed to ice pack movement and fracture.

EOSDIS Worldview July 5, 2015, the clouds over the Central Arctic Basin were the lightning producing storm.

2016's Arctic heating and ice pack state has contributed to increased storms over the region. Here is how the lightning and thunderstorm season has unfolded.

2016's lightning season started on the North Slope - in May. In Atqasuk, an Inupiaq village 60 miles south of Barrow, they experienced a hail storm followed by thunder (cloud to cloud lightning - no ground strike), and a double rainbow. (Note the hail on the road). This was on May 25th!
Source: http://www.ktuu.com/content/news/In-Atqasuk-hail-then-rainbows-380857161.htm

June 1-14, 2016 reflected the waves of heat and thunderstorms that penetrated the Canadian Arctic, setting off the Ft. McMurray and other fires.

June 15-29, 2016 reveals an explosion of lightning activity across Alaskan North Slope, unmatched by prior years data, and the falreup of storm activity over the Russian Arctic and Canadian Arctic.

The map of June 28 to July 12, 2016 brings this to a somber conclusion - the Arctic lightning detection maps begin to reveal thunderstorms penetrating where lightning has never been seen - thunder never heard, with the ice pack being pelted with rain in ever heavier amounts. We are seeing lightning strikes at 80N, 625 miles into the Arctic Ocean icepack from Barrow. Part of our changing climate that humanity has not seen previously -and cannot change.

The July 10, 2016 EOSDIS View gives a glimpse of warmth streaming into the Arctic Ocean, bringing thunderstorm impacts not yet modeled.
What the impacts will be more tundra lightning, perhaps faster melt - time will tell.

One last comparison: 
June 28-July 12, 2006: The "Old" Normal

June 28-July 12, 2012: The "Transition" 

June 28-July 12 2016: The "New" Normal


  1. Thank you. Very interesting and a very clever bit of research. Yet more evidence of the new climate world we're creating. Well done.

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for your kind remarks, there is more research coming.