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Environmental scientists have mapped out the locations of lightning flashes detected across the UK, revealing the locations where strikes are more frequent as well as the times of year that tend to see peaks in thunderstorm activity. Lightning is generated when static electrical charges accumulate in storm clouds as a result of interactions between ice crystals and water droplets. When the difference in charge between either parts of the cloud or the cloud and the ground below is sufficiently large, it is equalised via a bolt of lightning. A typical lightning bolt carries a whopping 300 million Volts in electrical potential and 30,000 amps of current — enough to kill. 

The lightning map was produced by environmental scientist and doctoral candidate Leah Hayward of the University of Portsmouth and her colleagues. It covers all the strikes recorded in the United Kingdom and Ireland over the 12-year period between 2008 and 2019.

Data on strikes was sourced from three individual lightning location systems — ATDnet, LINET and Météorage. These systems work by detecting the low and very low frequency electromagnetic emissions produced by lightning bolts. Ms Hayward said: “The overall driver of this research was to combine three different technologies.”

This, she explained, allowed the team “to produce a more detailed picture of when and where lightning occurs most. Using multiple datasets has the advantage of allowing us to identify occasions where there is more uncertainty.”

This, she explained, “is represented by larger differences in spatial or temporal distribution between the datasets.”

In their study, the researchers divided the UK up into seven geographical regions — finding that different areas have contrasting summer thunderstorm seasons. For example, the inland parts of south-east England tend to see more lightning from April–August, while the southern coastline experiences more between May and July.

Curiously, the north-west facing coastlines of Scotland appear to have a second, smaller peak in lightning activity during the winter months. Ms Hayward added: “[We] tend to think of lightning and thunderstorms happening over the summer, but combining the datasets showed this isn’t solely the case.

“We also found that lightning is more likely to strike in the afternoon in inland areas of the south of England, but in coastal regions it also peaks in the early morning or overnight.

Ms Hayward says that she hopes the lightning map will help lessen risk when people are faced with extreme weather conditions.

She explained: “In some circumstances, thunderstorms can be difficult to forecast, but if you have some awareness of when the risk is greatest you can anticipate this and make a plan.

“For example, if you’re heading out on a mountain expedition and you know the highest risk time of day for your region, you can avoid being on the peak or a ridge and hopefully have descended before this time.

“It’s common sense really, but we hope this new research will arm people with stronger data and information than ever before.”

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Ms Hayward continued: “Thunderstorms can also produce intense bursts of rainfall which can result in flash flooding especially in urban areas.

“This type of hazard can be really expensive in both monetary and human terms.

“If councils are prepared for regional variations in the time of year this type of weather is likely to occur, they can make sure for example that all the drains are clear to reduce the danger and also implement contingency plans for rail and road users.”

The full findings of the study were published in the International Journal of Climatology.

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