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Bangladesh hopes storm warning system will cut deaths from lightning

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 16 Jul 2014 08:13 GMT
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Lightning strikes cross the skies as thunderstorm supercells pass through Texas, April 23, 2014. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
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DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bangladesh is working on a new scheme that will give early warning of storms and lightning strikes in a bid to combat rising deaths from the hazards.

“We are going to set up 10 thunderstorm observation centres in maritime ports, aiming to provide early warning to avoid deaths from increasingly frequent lightning strikes,” Local Government and Rural Development Minister Syed Ashraful Islam told parliament last month.

The centres will track storms across the whole country but are being built near ports, as coastal and river areas are especially vulnerable to extreme weather, with fishermen often working out on the open water.

The government-funded centres have been built and equipment is now being installed. The project is due to be up and running by next year.

Ashraful Islam said the number of thunderstorms hitting the South Asian tropical region has increased significantly in recent years, which he attributed to global warming. “If we can give early warning through examining the instability of the atmosphere, we may be able to reduce unwanted deaths,” he said.

In recent years, reports of deaths from lightning strikes have become frequent – although comprehensive figures have not been recorded.

For example, on May 30, at least 7 people died and many were injured in lighting strikes across Naogaon district in northern Bangladesh. In 2010, Bangladesh recorded a quarter of annual global deaths due to lightning strikes when some 102 people were killed, according to the New Age newspaper.

Bangladesh currently has no lightning detectors, but that will change under the new system, according to meteorologist Sadekul Alam. 

STAY INDOORS

Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies (BCAS), said early warning of lightning strikes through examining cloud movements is possible, and could help avoid some deaths.

Rahman said that, in recent years, winds have become stronger, accompanied by more frequent thunderstorms. Climate change has clear linkages with this rise in extreme weather, he added.

Yet if the new warning system is to help avoid deaths, people must know how to act on alerts, Rahman stressed. Experts recommend staying inside during thunderstorms, and away from windows and doors.

Abul Kalam Mallik of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department in Dhaka said the country’s weather offices advise people about weather conditions as part of their routine work. “If there is anything unusual due to happen, a special bulletin is also broadcast to inform people of possible danger,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

High temperatures and humidity in Bangladesh mean weather conditions can be unstable, resulting in thunderstorms and lightning strikes, he added.

LOCAL-LEVEL WARNINGS

The thunderstorm observation centres will be equipped with modern technology that can provide customised warnings about possible lightning strikes in specific areas, even narrowing the risk down to particular districts. The alerts will be disseminated via radio and television bulletins, as well as by megaphone in some coastal areas.

Shamsul Alam, a climate change expert and member of Bangladesh’s Planning Commission, said many other countries, including the United States and India, are successfully providing warning of storms and lightning strikes.

“Global temperature rise has caused various changes, including an increased number of thunderstorms, cyclones and other natural calamities. As the weather is becoming more extreme due to warmer temperatures, we need more advanced technology to predict weather movements and their impacts,” he said.

If locally tailored warnings can be issued, and people are made aware of the need to follow advice, deaths from lightning strikes may be reduced, he added.

LOSS OF TREE COVER

Ainun Nishat, an eminent environmentalist and vice chancellor of Brac University, said rising temperatures have caused more evaporation and cloud formation in recent years.

At the same time, Bangladesh’s population has grown. “Due to high population density, one lightning strike kills many people,” he said.

“Earlier we saw the tops of many big trees being burned by lighting strikes. But nowadays, due to massive urbanisation and increased use of cultivable lands, large trees are removed. So during thunderstorms, when a farmer or anyone else stays out in an open field, they are being hit by lightning,” Nishat said.

Raising awareness among people - especially those likely to remain outdoors during storms - and providing early warning would certainly help reduce casualties, he added.

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: youths1990@yahoo.com 

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