Study: Ship exhaust responsible for stronger storms, more lightning strikes out at sea

WASHINGTON D. C. — As hurricanes pummel the Caribbean and southern United States, new research is being published linking heavy shipping traffic to stronger storms.

Specifically looking at thunderstorms directly above two busy shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, the compelling new study was based on mapping lightning strikes over a period of twelve years.

Lightning strikes, storms over ocean
A new study finds that particles from the exhaust released by ships are creating stronger thunderstorms over oceans and doubling the amount of lightning strikes typically recorded.

Showing a twofold increased incidence of lightning strikes over the shipping lanes, scientists say the research is the first of its kind and is especially convincing when it comes to linking human activity to storms.

“It’s one of the clearest examples of how humans are actually changing the intensity of storm processes on Earth through the emission of particulates from combustion,” says study lead author and atmospheric scientist Joel Thornton in a press release.

Other atmospheric scientists who weren’t involved in the study are likewise impressed with its results.

“It is the first time we have, literally, a smoking gun, showing over pristine ocean areas that the lightning amount is more than doubling,” says Daniel Rosenfeld, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The study shows, highly unambiguously, the relationship between anthropogenic emissions – in this case, from diesel engines – on deep convective clouds.”

Explaining the mechanism whereby ships affect storms, researchers say it seems particles from the ships’ exhaust cause smaller cloud droplets. This lifts the particles higher into the atmosphere, creating more ice particles and more lightning.

Adding further detail, the researchers explain that aerosols produced by combustion engines (such as soot, nitrogen, and sulfur compounds) act as nuclei for water vapor to form around. That is to say, just as water gathers on a cold glass, so it can gather on these tiny particles. These extra droplets boost cloud formation researchers say.

The basis of this new study came as NASA scientist and study co-author Katrina Virts noticed that sensors were picking up a peculiar pattern of lightning strikes. The strikes formed “a nearly straight line” across the Indian Ocean.

When she worked with colleagues to overlay lightning strike locations with shipping data, the research team found nearly twice as many strikes over major shipping routes.

“All we had to do was make a map of where the lightning was enhanced and a map of where the ships are traveling and it was pretty obvious just from the co-location of both of those that the ships were somehow involved in enhancing lightning,” Thornton says.

The study findings were published yesterday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


  1. Just when I thought the weather alarmists couldn’t get more moronic. Previous to Harvey, a more severe hurricane landed in that area 80 years ago. News Alert: the climate has always been changing and will continue to change regardless of who you are trying to guilt money from.
    Next: increased motorized weed-eater use causes tornado’s!

  2. Sounds bogus. If shipping lanes caused lightening storms, the NYC to Southampton route would be lit up all the time. Its not. Shipping lanes in the South China Seas follow current patterns and tend to be in zones where offshore currents meet off land winds. Voila! Billions of electron volts generated. Nothing to do with ships.

  3. I just read about a study concluding 40% of Americans still sleep with their teddy bears. Considering teddy bears and diesel exhaust studies, one wonders about the effect of ant flatulence on global warming, global cooling or global other.

  4. A well-argued hypothesis. The study examined two of the most heavily traveled shipping routes in the world, in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, where convective activity is already present. You wouldn’t see this effect so pronounced over the North Atlantic because there is much less convective activity in that region. This is good, hard, peer-reviewed science and it’s clear most of the commenters here never bother to look at the studies and rely instead on their own confirmation bias to avoid having to change their minds. And that is sad commentary indeed.

  5. Convenient hypothesis based on anecdotal evidence…just like many politically driven “studies” today. Instantly blamed on combustion without possibility of anything else. Maybe those shipping lanes have slightly higher temps because the surface of the water is disturbed more often. Maybe the ionization of the water/atmosphere relationship in those areas is different because of surface disturbance. Hell, maybe its because large, tall, objects, draw lightning.
    There are many number of other possibilities and causes, but the man made global warming crowd instantly push their agenda, and the pseudo-educated masses lap it up like mothers milk, and then try to shame anyone who expresses any doubt.

  6. Correlation does not equal causation, I would warn. I realize this is a summary of the study, but I don’t think they made their case that this is a great example of AGW. Further, I wouldn’t be alarmed if they were correct.


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