Across much of the country, the rumble of thunder is a familiar sound on a hot, humid afternoon. But in Alaska, thunderstorms are more rare.

That’s because thunderstorms form when warm, moist air near the surface of the Earth rises and collides with colder air.

“Those conditions historically are hard to come by in Alaska,” says Andrew Newman, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “You see kind of infrequent thunderstorms to maybe no thunderstorms depending on where you are.”

He says that as the climate changes, temperatures are rising quickly in the region. And sea ice is melting – giving way to open water, which evaporates more easily.

“With that, we expect more moisture to be present in the atmosphere … which gives the conditions for thunderstorm days,” Newman says.

His team estimates that if emissions of heat-trapping pollution continue to rise, the number of thunderstorms in Alaska could triple by the end of the century.

That could pose significant risks in the state, such as flash flooding and landslides. Lightning already sparks wildfires in Alaska’s vast wilderness, and if thunderstorms grow more common, those fires could ignite more often.

But Newman says that if people cut global carbon pollution, future thunderstorms and the threats they pose can be minimized.

Editor’s note: This story was updated July 8, 2021, to clarify that lightning strikes already cause wildfires in Alaska.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media