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SCIENTISTS estimate that there are three million lightning strikes every day around the world; the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is the lightning capital of the world, with more lightning strikes here than anywhere else on earth. All year round, thunderstorms are caused as warm, moisture-laden air rises from the Atlantic Ocean and the Congo rainforest, then cools as it encounters the mountains in the eastern DRC.
This map from NASA’s Space Observatory colour codes the number of lightning strikes per year in a particular location, using data from 1995 to 2013. The brightest parts of the map have at least 150 strikes a year per square kilometre.
The Global Lightning Activity Map produced by NASA in 2015, using data collected between 1998 and 2013 by the Lightning Imaging Sensor on NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite. (Photo/ NASA)
In one very bizarre 1998 incident, all 11 members of a football team were killed by a bolt of lightning which left the other team unhurt, the BBC, quoting a Congolese newspaper, reported. Thirty other people were left with burns at the match in eastern Kasai Province.
Kinshasa daily newspaper L’Avenir said local opinion was divided over whether someone had cursed the team. The two sides were drawing 1-1 when the lightning struck the visiting team – but the opposing side escaped largely unscathed.
Africa is the lightning capital of the world because it has more landmass at the equator than any other continent.
The impact of this is two-fold: first, much more lightning occurs over land than over the ocean because land heats up faster than water, when exposed to sunshine. The heated land surface then warms up the air above it, which rises and hits a mass of cold air above it. Thunderstorms and lightning are the result when warm and cold air collide.
There’s more lightning near the equator than the poles because the sun’s rays don’t warm up the land surface effectively, and which means there’s little moisture in polar air. That means lightning is a rare sight in polar regions.
When measured by the number of days per year that experience lightning, there’s one unlikely place that tops Africa’s lightning rankings – Tororo in eastern Uganda.
Tororo has 251 days of lightning per year, second only to El Bagre in Colombia, with 270 days per year.
Part of the reason is that Tororo is nestled between a lake (Lake Victoria) and mountains (Mt. Elgon), which makes it a thunderstorm hotspot; warm, moist air from the lake cools as it encounters the colder, highland air.
The other reason is curious – it has to do with the soil. Tororo has a large amount of iron in its soil, and this gives the ground a natural positive charge, which then attracts the negatively charged electrons from the storm cloud.
When there is a slight drizzle accompanied by strong winds, you should get indoors or into your car to stay safe, Uganda’s meteorology department.
The department says that 10% of the lightning strikes result into death and 70% lead to permanent injuries including cardiac arrest, brain damage and memory loss.