Global data on the economic impact of thunderstorms is patchy, but a 2008 assessment by the National Lightning Safety Institute in Louisville, Colo., placed the annual costs in the United States at $5 billion to $6 billion. That includes forest fires and damage to structures from lightning strikes, and flooding from heavy rains.
Dr. Price and his co-author, Maayan Harel, looked at 2013 thunderstorm data from the World Wide Lightning Location Network, determined which climate-related variables had the most influence on storms and then used those variables to build a model that created a simulated history of thunderstorm activity over Africa from 1948 to 2016.
The project took seven years. Their next study will look at thunderstorms in Southeast Asia, another tropical hot spot.
Because of data limitations and differing methodologies, there is no consensus, for now at least, on how climate change will affect thunderstorms, or whether more thunderstorms would necessarily mean more lightning strikes.
A study in Nature Climate Change in 2018, for instance, forecast a decrease in lightning as the world warms. One of the authors of that paper, Declan L. Finney, a meteorologist at the University of Leeds, said it was important to keep an open mind about how predictions could change as scientists refined their methods.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty, but this work is useful in contributing to that discussion,” Dr. Finney said of the new study.
Researchers agree, though, that simple measures like developing systems to warn people of impending thunderstorms and installing grounding systems in buildings could go a long way in avoiding deaths and injuries. Thunderstorm patterns can’t be changed, Dr. Price said, “but we can give people protection.”