Articles | Volume 18, issue 17
Research article
06 Sep 2018
Research article |  | 06 Sep 2018

The climate impact of aerosols on the lightning flash rate: is it detectable from long-term measurements?

Qianqian Wang, Zhanqing Li, Jianping Guo, Chuanfeng Zhao, and Maureen Cribb

Abstract. The effect of aerosols on lightning has been noted in many case studies, but much less is known about the long-term impact, relative importance of dynamics–thermodynamics versus aerosol, and any difference by different types of aerosols. Attempts are made to tackle all these factors, whose distinct roles are discovered by analyzing 11-year datasets of lightning, aerosol loading and composition, and dynamic–thermodynamic data from satellite and model reanalysis. Variations in the lightning rate are analyzed with respect to changes in dynamic–thermodynamic variables and indices such as the convective available potential energy (CAPE) and vertical wind shear. In general, lightning has strong diurnal and seasonal variations, peaking in the afternoon and during the summer. The lightning flash rate is much higher in moist central Africa than in dry northern Africa presumably because of the combined influences of surface heating, CAPE, relative humidity (RH), and aerosol type. In both regions, the lightning flash rate changes with aerosol optical depth (AOD) in a boomerang shape: first increasing with AOD, tailing off around AOD  =  0.3, and then behaving differently, i.e., decreasing for dust and flattening for smoke aerosols. The deviation is arguably caused by the tangled influences of different thermodynamics (in particular humidity and CAPE) and aerosol type between the two regions. In northern Africa, the two branches of the opposite trends seem to echo the different dominant influences of the aerosol microphysical effect and the aerosol radiative effect that are more pronounced under low and high aerosol loading conditions, respectively. Under low-AOD conditions, the aerosol microphysical effect more likely invigorates deep convection. This may gradually yield to the suppression effect as AOD increases, leading to more and smaller cloud droplets that are highly susceptible to evaporation under the dry conditions of northern Africa. For smoke aerosols in moist central Africa, the aerosol invigoration effect can be sustained across the entire range of AOD by the high humidity and CAPE. This, plus a potential heating effect of the smoke layer, jointly offsets the suppression of convection due to the radiative cooling at the surface by smoke aerosols. Various analyses were done that tend to support this hypothesis.

Short summary
Based on 11-year data of lightning flashes, aerosol optical depth (AOD) and composion, and meteorological variables, we investigated the roles of aerosol and meteorological variables in lightning. Pronounced differences in lightning were found between clean and polluted conditions. Systematic changes of boomerang shape were found in lightning frequency with AOD, with a turning point around AOD = 0.3, beyond which lightning activity is saturated for smoke aerosols but always suppressed by dust.
Final-revised paper