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Washington’s lightning toll jumps to 3;  Experts see the climate warning

Scientists say climate change is increasing the likelihood of lightning strikes across the United States, after lightning struck a plaza near the White House, leaving three dead and another in critical condition.

Hot and humid conditions in the US capital on Thursday were conducive to power. The air temperature peaked at 34 degrees Celsius, 3C higher than the normal 30-year high temperature for Aug. 4, according to the National Weather Service.

More heat can draw more moisture into the atmosphere, while encouraging rapid updrafting, two key factors for charged particles that lead to lightning. A key study published in 2014 in the journal Science warned that the number of lightning strikes could increase by 50% this century in the United States, with every 1 C of warming resulting in a 12% increase in the number of lightning strikes.

Rapidly warming Alaska has seen a 17% increase in lightning activity since the cooler 1980s. And in typically dry California, a siege of 14,000 lightning strikes in August 2020 sparked some of the largest wildfires on record in the state.

Beyond the United States, there is evidence that lightning strikes also occur in India and Brazil.

Bolts rarely hit people

But even though lightning strikes are on the rise, being hit by one is still extremely rare in the United States, experts say. About 40 million lightning strikes the country every year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a probability of being struck of less than 1 in a million.

Of those affected, about 90% survive the ordeal, according to the CDC. The country has counted 444 deaths due to lightning from 2006 to 2021.

The two men and two women who were struck by lightning Thursday while visiting Washington’s Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, weren’t so lucky when a bolt of lightning hit the ground during a violent storm in the afternoon.

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

All four victims suffered life-threatening injuries and were taken to area hospitals. Two later died: James Mueller, 76, and Donna Mueller, 75, of Janesville, Wisconsin, the Metropolitan Police Department said.

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

Later Friday, a third victim, a 29-year-old man, was pronounced dead, the Metropolitan Police Department said. Further details about the victim have been withheld until the person’s family can be notified.

Since heat and humidity are often required to produce lightning, most strikes occur in the summer. In the United States, the populous subtropical state of Florida sees the most people killed by lightning.

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