In DepthEcology

Tallying the tropical toll on trees from lightning

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Science  23 Jun 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6344, pp. 1222
DOI: 10.1126/science.356.6344.1222

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Lightning strikes on trees are different in the tropics. When lightning hits a pine in Kentucky, where Steve Yanoviak works as a biologist at the University of Louisville, it tends to blow off the bark and sear a blackened scar into the trunk, and is nearly always fatal. But it rarely leaves a visible trace on a tropical tree. Still, lightning—many times more common in tropical than in temperate forests—does kill tropical trees in slow motion and could play a major role in rainforest health. This summer Yanoviak is back on Barro Colorado Island in the middle of the Panama Canal, armed with a network of video cameras and other sensors, to study the effects of tropical forest lightning strikes, which threaten to kill more and more trees if climate change makes thunderstorms in the region even more frequent.