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By Gloria Dickie

(Reuters) – Scientists say climate change is increasing the likelihood of lightning strikes across the United States after lightning struck a square near the White House, killing two people and leaving two others in critical condition.

Hot and humid conditions in Washington on Thursday were conducive to electricity. The air temperature reached 34 degrees Celsius –3°C above the normal maximum temperature for August 4 in the last 30 years, according to the National Weather Service.

More heat can draw more moisture into the atmosphere, while encouraging a rapid updraft — two key factors for charged particles, which lead to lightning. A major study released in 2014 in the journal Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50% this century in the United States. Every 1°C of warming would translate to a 12% increase in the number of lightning strikes.

Alaska’s rapid warming has led to a 17% increase in lightning activity since the colder 1980s. And in typically dry California, a cluster of about 14,000 lightning strikes in August 2020 set off some of the largest wildfires ever recorded in the state.

In addition to the United States, there is evidence that lightning strikes are also skyrocketing in India and Brazil.

But even as lightning increases, being struck by one is still extremely rare in the United States, experts say. About 40 million lightning strikes in the country every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control — with the odds of being struck being less than 1 in 1 million.

Among those who are afflicted, about 90% survive, says the CDC.

The two men and two women struck by lightning on Thursday while visiting Washington’s Lafayette Square, north of the White House, were struck by lightning that struck the ground during a violent afternoon thunderstorm.

The lightning struck near a tree that is a few meters from the fence that surrounds the presidential residence and offices in front of the square, which is often crowded with visitors, especially in the summer months.

All four victims suffered serious injuries and were taken to area hospitals, where two later died, officials said.

“We are saddened by the tragic loss of life,” the White House said in a statement on Friday. “Our hearts go out to the families who have lost loved ones and we are praying for those still fighting for their lives.”

As heat and humidity are often necessary to produce lightning, the highest incidence occurs in the summer. In the United States, Florida, a subtropical state, is where more people die from lightning.

(By Gloria Dickie)

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