Azula. Storm. Kakashi. Thor. Blossom. Livewire. Sailor Jupiter. Black Lightning. Killua. Pikachu. Each of these beloved characters has one trait in common, and that’s the ability to use, manipulate, and bend lightning. While these characters wield electric discharge as a weapon against their foes, lightning is emerging in the eleventh hour as a real-life fighter against one of Mother Earth’s most nefarious enemies: climate change.
Science recently released its findings from a 2012 study, in which researchers flew a NASA aircraft into the eye of a thunderstorm in Colorado. The results revealed that lightning bolts could help clean the air of pollutants such as methane, global warming’s biggest ally, methane. As part of the study, scientists used the NASA jetplane to measure chemical oxidizing elements in the storm clouds after lightning flashes and electric discharges. Hydroxyl, known as the “detergent of the atmosphere,” is one of the most important oxidizing species helping the atmosphere cleanse itself. When hydroxyl comes into contact with methane, it dissolves into water and returns as rain. Researchers discovered lightning produces large amounts of hydroxyl (OH) and hydroperoxyl (HO2), two oxidizing elements that are known to break down greenhouse gases. This direct oxidizing process is referred to as LHOx.
“Initially, we looked at these huge [hydroxyl] and [hydroperoxyl] signals found in the clouds and asked, what is wrong with our instrument?” said William H. Brune, one of the authors of the recent study and a professor of meteorology at Penn State. “We assumed there was noise in the instrument, so we removed the huge signals from the dataset and shelved them for later study. With the help of a great undergraduate intern, we were able to link the huge signals seen by our instrument flying through the thunderstorm clouds to the lightning measurements made from the ground.”
Brune later told Inverse, “We are surprised by the extreme amounts of [hydroxyl] and [hydroperoxyl] generated in thunderstorm anvils and cores. They are orders of magnitude larger than any previous atmospheric [hydroxyl] and [hydroperoxyl] measurements […] understanding global [hydroxyl ]and its sensitivity to climate change is a big deal.”
Will combatting climate change take to the skies? It’s too soon to tell. However, Brune and the team of scientists behind the study are planning to continue further experiments. This could help us understand how thunderstorms affect air pollution and changing climate.
As a California girl, I’ve only witnessed a handful of lightning storms in my lifetime. Last summer, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a flash of light. Thinking nothing of it, I rolled over to go back to sleep when another flash of light lit up my bedroom. I climbed out of bed to peek out the window and watched for the next 30 minutes or so as blue-white light streaked across the sky. After trying to count the seconds between each strike, I gave up and simply watched the storm with a heart beating too fast.
Like quicksand and other perils prevalent in children’s cartoons, lightning is one of those natural phenomena that makes me oscillate between fear and indifference. Growing up, the house next door to a family member’s caught on fire after being struck by lightning. In recent years, wildfires in the Western United States have increasingly been ignited by lightning storms.
In our lifetime, the odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 15,300. Globally, 2,000 people are killed via lightning strike each year, while hundreds more survive only to suffer from symptoms like memory loss, dizziness, weakness, and more.
On average, scientists hypothesize that around 1,800 lightning storms are raging around the globe at any given moment. This amounts to about 40 to 50 flashes of lightning every second globally. Over the course of a year, scientists estimate there are about 25 million lightning flashes in the U.S. alone. The most common type of lightning is cloud-to-ground lightning, with each flash capable of heating the air around it to temperatures five times hotter than the sun’s surface. This heat expands and vibrates to create the accompanying thunder. If the recent study published by Science proves to be true, then that means many of these lightning storms could be helping to remove harmful methane from our atmosphere.
In the next Powerpuff Girls reboot, X-Men spin-off, possible Hunter x Hunter season, or Avatar: The Last Airbender remake, maybe the writers could include something about lightning’s abilities to fight climate change. After all, the best villains are those that feel the most real—and what’s more real than climate change?
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!