Lightning greatest killer among disasters

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The Rising Nepal

Kathmandu, Apr. 15:Over the past few years, lightning strikes have emerged as the number one killer among all sorts of natural calamities that hit the country every year.

Lightning strikes kill more people annually in Nepal than floods, landslides, fire, storms and other natural disasters, records showed. Despite killing more people, the calamity of lightning has so far received little attention from the concerned authority.
The records of last three year showed though the devastating 2015 earthquake had killed many people, lightning had also accounted for the higher number of deaths, with 840 fatalities in Nepal. Lightning kills over 24,000 people all over the world every year. 
Bedh Nidhi Khanal, under-secretary and chief at the National Emergency Operation Centre under the Ministry of Home Affairs said, “We often ignore lightning because unlike other disasters it rarely leads to a mass casualty. Such strikes are sporadic and scattered, but it is a major killer nonetheless.”

According to Khanal, since 2011, lightning fatalities have exceeded by 100 every year except in 2015/16 and 2018/19. In 2015, the Gorkha earthquake struck during the pre-monsoon and had led to a miscalculation on the total deaths caused by lightning. 
The sharp decline in human fatalities this year is mostly due to under-reporting, he said. However, the overall trend of fatalities is much higher, said Khanal. “This could be due to better reporting after the National Emergency Operation Centre was set up at the Home Ministry five years ago, but studies have also linked the increase in intensity and frequency of thunderstorms because of the climate change impact.”   
Senior meteorologist Min Kumar Aryal said that Nepal has just experienced an unusual winter with heavy precipitation and rare thunderstorms. Such storms are uncommon in winter in the Himalayas. “Extreme weather events caused by climate change have a role in increasing the electric charge inside clouds and occur at times when they traditionally would not, making Nepal as one of the countries most susceptible to lightning fatalities,” explained Aryal. 
According to him, globally, up to 95 per cent of all lightning is negatively charged, but it is the 5 per cent of positively charged lightning strikes that are more lethal. 
In Nepal, 34 per cent of all cloud-to-ground strikes are positively charged, he said. 
The other reasons for the country’s high

lightning fatality rate is that lightning from storm clouds travels much shorter distances to reach the ground in the high mountains, he added. Nepal is also the most densely populated mountainous country in the world.
When looking at the district wise breakdown of fatalities from lightning, Makawanpur is the most dangerous, with 54 deaths and 245 injuries due to lightning in the last five years. 
According to Prof. Shree Ram Sharma at Amrit Science Campus in Kathmandu, lightning is particularly destructive in an agriculture-dependent country. 
Thunderbolts deposit a significant amount of nitrate in the soil every time they strike, and an excess of nitrate is detrimental to crops, said Sharma, who is doing his research in lightning for the past 10 years. 
The fatality rate from lightning strikes for livestock is higher than that for humans. Cattle are five times more likely than people to get killed in an electric storm, he said. 
Public buildings such as schools, hospitals and government offices should be equipped with lightning rods, he suggested. 
Telecommunication and transmission towers are at high risk because they are located on mountain tops, and need special safety measures integrated into their design. As more people use mobile phones, they must remember that it could be dangerous to use electronic devices during thunderstorms. 
The best strategy to decrease lightning fatalities should be to invest in forecasting equipment and better preparedness, Sharma said. 
The good thing is that the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology has set up nine lightning detection stations across Nepal (Dhangadi, Surkhet, Nepalganj, Pokhara, Bhairawa, Kathmandu, Simara, Tumlingtar and Biratnagar) to study thunderstorm activities and provide more accurate forecasts, according to Aryal.
“Data generated at these stations can indicate long-term lightning trends, their frequency and concentration, which in turn can help with better ‘now-casting’ of electric storms so people can seek safety,” said Aryal.