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18 May, 2018 00:00 00 AM
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Lightning Strikes

By Bipul K Debnath
Lightning Strikes

We are going through a nightmarish situation every day this monsoon. We don't know who will be killed in the next lightning strike _ thus, Borhan Uddin, chairman of Tahirpur union parishad in Sunamganj district, expressed his concern following a recent spate of deaths by lightning during thunderstorms.

“We, the residents of Tahirpur, Bishwamvarpur and Doorabazar areas are the worst sufferers. The number of lightning strikes is increasing each year. Last year, only one person was killed. But in the past 40 days, four people were killed and another 10 were injured in separate incidents. Today, a 62-year-old woman named Sahara Banu died in Bishwamvarpur after being struck by a lightning bolt in the courtyard of her house. Most of the people in our locality are very poor. They have to go out to the haor (wetland) for fishing and the fields for farming which are their only sources of income. So, they do cannot escape death from this devastating act of nature,” Borhan Uddin, 52, told The Weekend Independent over telephone on May 8.

The local chairman also said the district authorities have taken steps to tackle the situation. “Besides, we have also formed a team of volunteers that is working to create mass awareness about lightning and what to do during thunderstorms so people can save themselves from this growing natural disaster,” he added.

Borhan Uddin believes the number of deaths from lightning could be reduced if the authorities install equipment to channel bolts of lightning safely into the ground in open fields and haor areas. “We can see the lowest number of casualties from lightning strikes near electricity pylons (transmission towers) as they receive the bolts immediately. So, lightning rods should be set up in open and haor areas to protect lives,” he urged.

In the first four and a half months of 2018, from January 1 to May 15, a total of 184 people have been killed by lightning strikes, according to the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry website. So far this year, the highest number of casualties on a single day was recorded on May 10 when at least 29 people, mostly villagers, were killed by lightning in a dozen districts across the country, news reports said. In 2017, there were 262 deaths from lightning, while the toll was 351 in 2016, according to independent researchers.

The increasing number of deaths and injuries from lightning strikes in recent years has caused serious concerns among the people. The government, meanwhile, declared lightning strikes as a national disaster in 2016 after 82 people were killed in a single day in May that year.

Since then, many action plans and preventive measures have been taken to prevent casualties from this destructive natural phenomenon, which is common during thunderstorms from March to July. For example, scores of palm trees, which naturally ‘catch’ bolts of lightning before the electrostatic discharge from the clouds reach the ground, were planted in different parts of the country. But experts say the use of technology could be more effective to deal with lightning bolts, as palm trees take a long time to grow.

“Like other natural disasters, we have taken many effective steps to reduce losses from lighting strikes,” said Reaz Ahmed, director general of Department of Disaster Management (DDM). “The tall palm trees are considered to be an effective natural way to tackle this disaster. So, we have already planted 10 lakh (1 million) palm trees across the country. The department is also providing financial help to the families who have lost members in lightning strikes.”

No elaborate research has been done on lightning in our country. So, due to lack of authentic data, it is difficult to determine whether lightning strikes have actually increased or not in recent times. But there is no doubt that the number of deaths is increasing.

More than 1,800 people were killed by lightning from 2010 to 2017, according to a study recently published by MA Farukh, head of Environmental Science Department at Bangladesh Agricultural University, who researches thunderstorms and lightning strikes in Bangladesh.

Farukh said he collected data from newspaper reports, World Wide Lightning Location Network (WWLLN), an open source of international weather report providers, and other sources for his research paper. “For this research, I also looked at newspapers from the 1990s. But at that time, lightning incidents were not reported in the media as we see today,” Farukh told this correspondent.

“The highest incidents of lightning are seen in Sunamganj and Srimangal areas of Sylhet division, compared to other areas of the country. Besides, lightning strikes are also common in Kishoreganj (Dhaka), Chapainawabganj (Rajshahi), and Netrokona (Mymensingh),” shared Farukh from his research work. Though lightning is more prevalent in northeastern Sunamganj district, more people were killed in the northern districts, he added.

Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD), a state weather forecasting institution, has recently installed eight lightning detection sensors across the country to monitor and get proper data on lighting strikes. About the function of the devices, Mozidul Islam, a BMD project director, said: “Besides the BMD headquarters at Agargaon in Dhaka, these sensors have been set up in Mymensingh, Sylhet, Tetulia in Panchagarh, Badolgachi in Naogaon, Koira in Khulna, Patuakhali and Chittagong (Chattogram). The sensors can cover the whole country and record the total number of lightning.”

The sensors form a lightning detection network that locates thunderclouds (cumulonimbus) and measures the electromagnetic radiation emitted by lightning. The data is used to calculate the exact discharge location as well as the strength and polarity of lightning, providing detailed and precise data.

“We didn’t have the technology before to detect lightning. So, we could not say whether the number of strikes was increasing or not. Now, our meteorologists can forecast lightning more authentically as each sensor will help to pinpoint thunderclouds gathering on the horizon at least 10 to 20 minutes before bolts of lightning strike the ground. So, people will get time to move to a safe place which will help reduce the number of casualties. Besides, the sensors are recording the number of lightning strikes and we will use the data to make proper forecast in future,” Islam said.

Previously, BMD used to predict thunderstorms based on information gathered from radars or weather satellites. “But now the new sensors will provide clear information about the location and time of lightning strikes. A weather report on lighting will then be posted on the met office’s website. Besides, BMD weather app users can also get the information instantly. At the same time, instructions will be given on what people should do to stay safe during thunderstorms. Moreover, our data users, especially community radios, can play a vital role in spreading the information to remote corners of the country,” Islam added.

Welcoming the BMD initiative, Boshir Ahmed, station in-charge of Radio Chilmari (FM 99.20), which airs various programmes on disaster management in Chilmari area of Kurigram district, said over telephone: “Lightning is a major natural disaster these days. For that, we have regular radio programmes to create awareness among the local people. Nobody has been killed this year, but 15 people were injured by lightning in our area till date (May 12). We don’t want anyone to face this kind of disaster. If the met department informs us about the cautionary signals regarding lightning strikes, we will pass on the information to our listeners.”

While talking to journalists about the present weather situation recently, Disaster Management and Relief Minister Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury also gave importance on creating awareness among the people to avoid death from lightning. He advised everyone to check weather updates before leaving home.

But why are lightning strikes occurring so frequently nowadays? To find out the answer, The Weekend Independent talked to meteorologists and weather experts.

M Omar Faruq, a meteorologist of BMD, believes deforestation and wide use of mobile phones could be the reasons. “Once, there were many palm, coconut, betel nut and banyan trees in our villages. But now, the number of these trees has been reduced. We know these types of tress are effective in tackling lightning. Besides, the rapid spread of mobile towers is also responsible,” he said. Lightning strikes are more frequent during thunderstorms in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, Faruq added.

Towhida Rashid, chairperson of Department of Meteorology at Dhaka University, said: “Lightning is an act of nature. But there is a chance to reduce the loss of lives. There are three stages of a thunderstorm. Lightning or thunder does not occur in the first stage. At first, the clouds are formed and the sky becomes very dark. Later, black rainclouds are formed. Finally, lightning begins with a flash of light. During this period of time, people should go to a safe place.”

The professor believes incidents of lightning are increasing due to global warming and negative effects of climate change. “In Bangladesh, we know temperatures have increased due to climate change. There is a relationship between rise in atmospheric temperature and lightning incidents. The high temperature is responsible for creating thunderclouds, which increase the possibility of lightning bolts,” she added.

Taslima Imam, another meteorologist of BMD, agrees with Rashid: “We know natural calamities are increasing day by day because of climate change. The temperature of the atmosphere is rising and the number of thunderclouds is also increasing, which results in more lightning strikes.” There is 12 percent possibility of a thunderstorm forming from one degree increase in temperature, she added.

“Thunderstorms and lightning occur every year and the number of lightning strikes varies from area to area. But this year, the number seems a bit more,” Imam said. “We can see that the people who lost their lives in lightning strikes are mostly farmers. So, coconut and betel nut trees should be planted around the fields. Cattle are also killed by lightning. So, they should also be moved to safe places,” she suggested.

Generally, lightning strikes take place in the afternoon in Bangladesh. As to the reason, Imam said: “It is a feature of lightning. There is high temperature during the day. That creates a lot of water vapours in the atmosphere, which in turn create thunderclouds. That means the density of the storm increases, and at the end of the day, it leads to lightning.” n

Photos: Courtesy, Internet.

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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