Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.Weirder still, on top of there typically being not enough heat to form deep convective clouds in the Arctic, there’s also a limit to how high these things can build up into the atmosphere. Around the equator, the tropopause—a sort of boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere—sits on average about 10 miles up, while near the poles it’s on average half that high. “It’s this stable layer in the atmosphere that acts essentially as a lid on these convective clouds,” says UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain. One of these convective clouds needs to rise at minimum 15,000 feet if it’s going to produce a thunderstorm, and the tropopause makes that harder to do in the Arctic than at the equator.Ratcheting up the weirdness of these Arctic thunderstorms, satellite imagery shows that the lightning was sometimes striking over sea ice. “That's pretty amazing, because the preconditions that are necessary, to the extent that they're unusual in the Arctic, they are vanishingly unusual over the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean itself,” says Swain. Sea ice provides less heat and moisture to feed a deep convective cloud as it rises ever higher. But this time, a storm still managed to brew.This summer, the drier, warmer Arctic has been burning to an unprecedented degree , which raises the question of whether more frequent thunderstorms might spark more wildfires, releasing still more carbon into the atmosphere … making for yet more warming. Swain notes the phenomenon is too new to say for sure.What has become abundantly clear, though, is just how dramatically the Arctic is transforming in a multitude of ways. “Scientists already knew the Arctic was going to change much more rapidly than the rest of the world, and yet we've still been surprised at the rate of change we've been observing,” adds Swain. There’s the rapid rate of permafrost melt, for instance, and the melting of ice sheets. “All of those processes have started to accelerate, and in many cases have accelerated even faster than had been projected.”
“I think there's potential for nasty surprises coming out of the Arctic,” says Swain. “And they're hard to quantify right now because we don't have a great handle on all the feedback processes.”Welcome to a North Pole gone bizarro.
- The weird, dark history of 8chan and its founder
- 8 ways overseas drug manufacturers dupe the FDA
- Listen, here’s why the value of China’s yuan really matters
- A Boeing code leak exposes security flaws deep in a 787
- The terrible anxiety of location sharing apps
- 🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers , running gear (including shoes and socks ), and best headphones .
- 📩 Get even more of our inside scoops with our weekly Backchannel newsletter
- #Climate Change