Danger from the skies

lightning
Spacer_2000x1

Malaysia has the third highest number of lightning strikes in the world, but awareness among Malaysians of the danger is still lacking.

IT was hot and sunny when the Melaka United youth team started their training that fateful day on April 5. Before they knew it, however, it had started drizzling. Only when the downpour grew heavier did the players stop and head for cover. But as they were running for shelter, a bolt of lightning struck the goalpost area, hitting a group of players, physiotherapists and the goalkeeping coach. Goalkeeper Marco Stefan Petrovski and defender Muhamad Afiq Azuan – standing closest to the goalpost – were the worst hit. Afiq was cleared of danger after getting his injuries treated. Petrovski was not so lucky. He suffered cardiac arrest and went into coma. Three weeks later, the up-and-coming Australian goalkeeper passed away in the intensive care unit of the Putra Specialist Hospital, Malacca.

This lightning tragedy has been described as a freak accident but according to the US National Lightning Safety Institute (NLSI), lightning is one of the worst natural killers, causing at least 25,000 deaths worldwide each year. In Malaysia, from 2008 to May this year, there have been 110 deaths caused by lightning and 131 injuries, says director of the Centre for Electromagnetic and Lightning Protection Research (CELP) at Universiti Putra Malaysia, Prof Ir Dr Mohd Zainal Abidin Ab Kadir. Dr Zainal thinks this could be the tip of the iceberg, with many cases going unreported. “Our data shows cases obtained from media reports, personal accounts, coroner reports and hospital admissions, but there are unreported cases,” he says.

What many may not realise is that Malaysia has the third highest lightning activity in the world – according to the NLSI, Malaysia experiences an average of 180 to 260 thunderstorm days a year, after Indonesia (Bogor: 322) and Colombia (Cerromatosa: 275 to 320). Lightning typically occurs during thunderstorms – when upward drafts of warm air carrying moisture interact against other water or ice particles high up inside the thunderstorm clouds, generating static electricity until it reaches an explosive threshold. The greater exposure to the sun in countries at the Equator speeds up the vertical updrafts process (the process causing clouds to form), resulting in more rainfall and thunderstorms, Dr Zainal explains.

While lightning can occur throughout the year, the number of lightning activities is higher during the inter-monsoon periods – in April, May, September and October. The Meteorological Department has forecasted that showers and thunderstorms are expected over the next few weeks, with its director-general Datuk Che Gayah Ismail advising the public to take precautionary measures to stay safe during thunderstorms. And with global warming and climate change, we should prepare ourselves for more thunderstorms in the future, Dr Zainal warns. While the climate change theory is still contentious – some deny that global warming is happening – climate change proponents predict that we will see more than double the number of thunderstorms in the world, he shares. Conceding that more studies need to be done, Dr Zainal points out that data shows that the hotter it is, the higher the density of lightning flashes. “And global temperature has increased – that is a fact,” he notes.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states that the earth’s surface temperature has increased from 1.1°C to 6.4°C with a significant rise in the 1990s. Similarly, studies show that Malaysia’s average temperature has increased by 0.8°C (from 26.5 to 27.3°C) in the last 35 years. We experienced this rising heat ourselves in the past year as the recent El Nino phenomenon saw an increase in daily temperatures of between 0.5°C to 3°C in various parts of the country. The good news is, says Dr Zainal, while there might be an increase in density or the number of lightning strikes, the pattern of incidence is consistent – the peak season of lightning incidences remain between April to June and September to November.

Interestingly, the west coast of the peninsula has been identified as among those recording the highest number of lightning incidences. “This can be attributed to its geographical location, near the Straits of Malacca and surrounded by various highland ranges,” he adds, pointing out Subang (Selangor), Bayan Lepas (Penang) and Kluang (Johor) as the top lightning prone areas. Dr Zainal points to the increasing number of factories in those areas as a contributing factor to the high number of thunderstorms there, “The chemicals the factories release also contribute to thundercloud formation.” He also highlights deforestation and land clearing for development as possible contributing factors: “They will worsen the heat effect, and can increase the severity and frequency of thunderstorms.” Again stressing the need for more studies, Dr Zainal believes other parts of the country are also experiencing more frequent thunderstorm days. “Although Subang, Bayan Lepas and Kluang are prone to lightning, I would say it is getting more unpredictable nowadays,” he notes, underscoring the importance of public awareness of the dangers of lightning strikes.

Taking extra precautions could reduce the number of lightning accidents, Dr Zainal stresses. “Many are not aware of the damage that lightning can do and they take things for granted. The public should be more informed and be more aware that the country has a high number of lightning strikes. “There is no way to prevent thunderstorms from happening, but we should at least take the necessary precautions to prevent lightning injuries and fatalities.” This is particularly urgent with the forecasts of possible thunderstorms and rainfall from June to the rest of this year due to the possible occurrence of the La Nina phenomenon, as revealed by Natural Resource and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar recently.

The Met Dept has been focussing on educating the public on the severe weather and its impacts, with natural disasters due to weather happening more frequently now, Che Gayah tells Sunday Star, but admits that more needs to be done to raise public awareness. Concurring, Dr Zainal cites a study CELP conducted with the Vienna University of Technology in 2014 which examined the knowledge and preparedness for severe weather concern among urban and semi-urban residents of Malaysia. “We surveyed some 60 to 69 residents in the urban areas of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Our findings indicated that although a majority of respondents are very concerned about severe weather risks, their knowledge about its impacts and how to respond is somewhat low.” As he puts it, one death by lightning is a death too many as it can be prevented.

Local lightning expert and consultant engineer Hartono Zainal Abidin agrees that while awareness on the dangers of lightning and safety has gone up in the last decade, it is still not enough. “There are also many myths – for example, some say lightning strikes a particular area or person because there is a syaitan (demon) nearby or that it is retribution from God. Others think because handphones have been acknowledged as safe to use during thunderstorms, they can use it outside. There have been people struck by lightning while using their handphones while jogging, or as they were getting out of their car.”

Crucially, he says, many don’t realise how urgent it is to get to shelter when they hear thunder. “Many continue their outdoor activities or events when it drizzles despite hearing the clap of thunder. They only stop when the downpour becomes too heavy. Even then, they would just stay in tents or under porches or trees where they risk getting struck by lightning.”

Those interested in finding out more about lightning safety can attend a free talk by UPM and the IEEE Power and Energy Society Malaysia Chapter at Dewan Seminar, Level 2, Engineering Faculty, UPM, on Friday, May 27, from 9.30am to 11.30am. Limited space available.

Part 2: Sunday Star looks at how to lightning-proof your property and if it is safe to fly during a thunderstorm.

Source: The Star Online, By Hariati Azizan. Sunday, 22 May 2016