Lightning as an agent of tree mortality

Stephen P. Yanoviak, University of Louisville

Lightning is an exceptionally powerful natural phenomenon; its destructive effects have been a source of fear and fascination for humans throughout history. Scientists have a relatively good understanding of the physics of lightning, but its ecological relevance at the landscape scale – especially its role as an agent of tree death – remain unclear. Measuring the effects of lightning in tropical forests is particularly important because lightning frequency is expected to increase over the next few decades as the climate warms.

Lightning strikes at sunset. Photo: Scotto Bear via Wikimedia Commons

Our research provides the foundation for understanding how lightning affects forest dynamics and ecosystem processes such as carbon cycling. Specifically, we’re determining how the size, location, and identity of a tree affects the probability that it will be killed by lightning. We’re also measuring the amount of dead wood present in a forest due to lightning strikes. Tropical rainforests are the world’s best classroom for studying biodiversity and ecosystem processes, and this project provides outstanding opportunities for students to gain valuable first-hand research experience in an international setting. Likewise, the involvement of Panamanian students and researchers in this project will build scientific capacity in Panama and enhance the international exchange of knowledge. The field site in Panama is a popular tourist destination, so the project also provides a unique opportunity for participants to interact regularly with the public.


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