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What makes Brazil the lightning capital of the world?

. Jan 27, 2020
What makes Brazil the lightning capital of the world? Photo: Marcos Ozanan/A Plateia, via FP

Influenced by weather phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña, the city of São Paulo has become a lightning hotspot. Data from the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) shows that the number of bolts of lightning in the Southern Hemisphere’s most-populated city jumped from 28,000 in 2018 to 44,800 last year—a 60-percent increase.

As a matter of fact, Brazil has the highest incidence of lightning in the world, with an average of 77.8 million strikes per year.

Beyond this being an intriguing piece of geophysical trivia, these numbers also present serious risks for people around Brazil, with 2,182 deaths from lightning bolts in the last 20 years (80 percent of cases happened in the open air.</p> <p>However, this is not to say that Brazil is some sort of freakish lightning hotspot, the continental size of the country and its position in a large tropical zone make it no surprise that it attracts a lot of lightning. Increases in global temperatures have reportedly brought up the occurrence of storms even further.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1289526"></div><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script> <p>Inpe’s Atmospheric Electricity Group says that levels measured in 2002 showed around 55 million strikes yearly, some 30 percent less than we have today. These increases can be explained by the unstable conditions caused by global warming, as well as the growth of major urban centers and the &#8220;heat island&#8221; effect.</p> <p>The coordinator of the Atmospheric Electricity Group, Osmar Pinto Júnior, said in an interview to<em> Agência Brasil</em> that Brazil’s claim of “world champion in lightning” is not just about the country&#8217;s size, but also the hot temperatures, that can easily cause tropical storms.&nbsp;</p> <h2>What exactly <em>is</em> lightning? </h2> <p>In simple terms, lightning is a form of electricity produced when two points have an extremely high disparity of charge between them and temporarily equalize themselves. The discharge of energy is so intense that the air becomes a conductor of electricity, producing the brings bolts we see in the air.&nbsp;</p> <p>The other reason concerns clouds. &#8220;Thunderclouds&#8221; are formed by a combination of cold air, which creates small ice crystals that bump into each other on a regular basis. Every collision causes an electrical charge, which builds up over time inside the cloud itself—not too dissimilar to the static effect of rubbing a balloon on a piece of fabric. When the charge finds a point—either within the cloud or on the ground—with a highly opposed force, the lightning discharge takes place.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Pinto Júnior warns of the risks of lightning storms. They are more prevalent in spring and summer, where locals are more likely to be outdoors and thus exposed to risk.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Keeping safe in a storm</h2> <p>Quick and easy shelter is not always easy to come by in a lightning storm. Still, to avoid increasing risk, one should stay away from large objects such as antennas, steel poles, and even trees. While thick foliage may protect you from heavy rain, the tree itself can work as an effective lightning rod.</p> <p>The best protection is to seek tunnels, cars, or buildings. Also, people caught in lightning storms are advised not to use their mobile phones or other electronic objects.</p> <p>Beaches in Brazil can be particularly dangerous locations on stormy days, so check the weather forecast before pitching your parasol and getting comfortable.

 
Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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