A trainee cricketer died young in 2018 when a bolt of lightning during a routine warm-up session struck him, shocking many. In the same year, 14 people were killed in 41,025 lightning strikes in Andhra Pradesh.

Among deaths due to exposure to severe weather, lightning strikes claimed the most number of lives between 2001 and 2014, finds a new study.

Unusual weather events are deviations from long-term averages, including heat waves, cold waves, extreme precipitation (rainfall, snowfall and the like), lightning and tropical cyclones. These make up about 25% of all accidental deaths due to natural causes.

Of them, phenomena grouped under lightning (hailstorm, lightning itself and dust storm) kill more people in India than any other extreme weather phenomena.

About five individuals per million died due to exposure to extreme events from 2001 to 2014, said researchers at the Population Council, New Delhi.

An underestimated hazard, lightning caused the most number of deaths (40%), followed by extreme rainfall (24%) and unseasonably warm weather (20%) and extreme cold (15%) in India during the period, according to the study.

In India every year more than 2,500 people die due to lightning and experts believe that the severity and frequency of thunderstorm/dust storms are expected to shoot up due to increasing global temperature.

Distribution of the number of deaths due to extreme weather events by regions of India, 2001-14. Graphic by Bidhubhusan Mahapatra et al.
Distribution of the number of deaths due to extreme weather events by regions of India, 2001-14. Graphic by Bidhubhusan Mahapatra et al.

However, the phenomena (thunderstorm and lightning, squall, dust/hailstorm and strong winds) are not included in the centrally notified list of natural disasters.

Bidhubhusan Mahapatra of the Population Council at New Delhi argues that the instantaneous and short-acting nature of lightning influences public perception in a way that it obscures the gravity of the situation. In fact, the latest research has provided evidence for a “boiling frog” effect: how quickly humans normalise unusual weather.

“Lightning is not like other extreme weather events when you see the duration of exposure. For example, floods or extreme temperature conditions act for longer duration and hence, both people and governments see those as threats,” Mahapatra told Mongabay-India.

Disaster risk management specialist Faisel T. Illiyas and co-authors, who had in a commentary in June 2014, showed through historical data that “lightning is the most damaging natural disaster in India vis-a-vis loss of lives” over a 45-year period (1967 to 2012), drew attention to the inadequate reporting of lightning-related deaths in India.

“In a day several lightning-related deaths may occur across a state and on different times. This adds to the complexity of reporting of such deaths. In addition, we do not have estimates of economic loss and infrastructure damage from lightning,” Illiyas, who is now with the Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority, told Mongabay-India.

Illiyas, who is not associated with the study, underscored that lightning also kills livestock which could be factored in economic loss from the agriculture sector.

It was only in 2015, that the Fourteenth Finance Commission, recommended states to include state-specific disasters, including lightning and heatwaves, in their eligible list of disasters for funding support from the State Disaster Response Fund. States like Odisha then approved the inclusion of lightning among eight state-specific disasters under the State Disaster Response Fund.

Lightning as an underestimated and avoidable hazard

Writing in the journal Weather and Extreme Climate Events, Mahapatra and colleagues analysed the burden of death due to extreme weather events across the country in 13 years based on data on accidental deaths from the National Crime Records Bureau.

Severe weather during 2001-2014 accounted for only 0.07 percent of all deaths in the country, suggesting that contribution of extreme weather mortality to the burden of diseases is very small.

“The magnitude of the effect of extreme weather is much higher in India than in some of the other countries. And it is not the small number of deaths, but the impact these deaths are having on our economy and on families is crucial,” Mahapatra said.

Mahapatra stressed that beyond these deaths, many more are injured and disabled for life and so, the overall effects are catastrophic.

“Fatalities due to extreme weather needs to be taken into consideration in the context of climate change as most of the extreme weather events such as extreme precipitation, droughts are kind of induced by the process of climate change,” he said.

During the study period, more than 1,500 extreme weather events with at least one death were recorded. States of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal were hit the hardest by extremes.

The toll in the northern region was mainly due to cold waves, whereas it was extreme precipitation in the north-eastern region. Lightning sizzled across southern, eastern and central India.

The largest share of extreme weather-related deaths occurred in the central region of India. More than 100 lightning-related deaths were reported over the 13 years in the central and east Indian states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra (west-central India).

Lightning accounted for 77% of the fatalities due to unexpected weather in central India, contributing to more than half of the extreme weather-related deaths in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha.

Chart: Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay. Source: Bidhubhusan Mahapatra
Chart: Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay. Source: Bidhubhusan Mahapatra

“There are multiple factors contributing to the frequent occurrence of lightning in central and eastern India. Research has attributed flow of air, amount of aerosol, geophysical location and temperature variations as the key factors,” explained Mahapatra.

Going further, the researchers also examined the age and sex differentials in extreme weather-related deaths.

Connecting the dots, they found a greater number of men than women perished in extreme weather events which points to the greater involvement of men than women in labour force in sectors that requires one to work in open spaces such as agriculture and construction.

“We also found that a substantial proportion of death occurs among the population in the most productive age group of 30-44 years. Deaths in this age group can have larger implications on the economy of the country and bring mental stress and trauma to their families which can have long-term consequences,” he said.

Lightning detectors

Given the variety of extreme events India experiences, the National Disaster Management Authority has developed specialised action plans for specific extreme events. However, their implementation is not uniform across geographies, said Mahapatra, batting for state-specific plans that will help in dealing with specific extreme events by adopting localised mechanisms.

Earlier this year India announced that its meteorological department (India Meteorological Department) will be implementing an end-to-end prediction system for predicting thunderstorms/lightning by April 2019.

In the pipeline are prediction tools for thunderstorm/lightning and apps for farmers and urban areas that are being developed by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and the IMD.

As of now, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology Pune has installed 48 lightning sensors in the country which can pinpoint thunderstorm/lightning activities in real time and the institute has also developed a mobile app for alerts on impending lightning activity over the area.

Mahapatra reckons the success of the alert systems will depend on the mode of communication because the threat perception is still very poor among people, particularly, in the rural areas.

In Odisha, where nearly 300 people are killed in lightning incidents every year, the state government has listed lightning as state-specific disaster enabling the dependants of the victims to get Rs 4 lakh as compensation.

The Odisha State Disaster Management Authority is now collaborating with the US-based firm Earth Networks to install lightning detection systems in the state that works through a system of sensors.

“The sensors are able to capture lightning events and as we capture lighting we have predictive algorithms in place that pinpoint the location of the strikes,” Kumar Margasahayam from Earth Networks told Mongabay-India.

The key challenge for the success of the early warning system is a robust system for dissemination of the message, added Margasahayam.

To circumvent that, Odisha State Disaster Management Authority is setting up outdoor lightning alerting (siren) system in 14 most lightning-prone blocks of the state on a pilot basis and will integrate services of community disaster management volunteers (“Apada Mitra”) for relief and response in coastal districts.

In Andhra Pradesh, where the lightning detection and early warning system is at work, Illiyas mentioned alerts are issued through text messages.

“Location-specific warnings are crucial in delivery. We need to deliver the message within five to 10 minutes of the forecast. We need different media, one system is not enough,” Illiyas said.

“In general, deaths due to lightning can be minimised by improved housing structure, increasing awareness among individuals, and issuing preventable alert messages in the areas where the frequency of lightning is frequent. More palm trees can be planted so that the lightning strikes the trees instead of humans,” added Mahapatra.

Nearly the whole Kerala was affected due to floods in August 2018. Photo credit: Er.jose1589/Wikimedia Commons.
Nearly the whole Kerala was affected due to floods in August 2018. Photo credit: Er.jose1589/Wikimedia Commons.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.