Quantification and identification of lightning damage in tropical forests

Stephen P. Yanoviak, Evan M. Gora, Jeffrey M. Burchfield, Phillip M. Bitzer, Matteo Detto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Accurate estimates of tree mortality are essential for the development of mechanistic forest dynamics models, and for estimating carbon storage and cycling. However, identifying agents of tree mortality is difficult and imprecise. Although lightning kills thousands of trees each year and is an important agent of mortality in some forests, the frequency and distribution of lightning-caused tree death remain unknown for most forests. Moreover, because all evidence regarding the effects of lightning on trees is necessarily anecdotal and post hoc, rigorous tests of hypotheses regarding the ecological effects of lightning are impossible. We developed a combined electronic sensor/camera-based system for the location and characterization of lightning strikes to the forest canopy in near real time and tested the system in the forest of Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Cameras mounted on towers provided continuous video recordings of the forest canopy that were analyzed to determine the locations of lightning strikes. We used a preliminary version of this system to record and locate 18 lightning strikes to the forest over a 3-year period. Data from field surveys of known lightning strike locations (obtained from the camera system) enabled us to develop a protocol for reliable, ground-based identification of suspected lightning damage to tropical trees. In all cases, lightning damage was relatively inconspicuous; it would have been overlooked by ground-based observers having no knowledge of the event. We identified three types of evidence that can be used to consistently identify lightning strike damage in tropical forests: (1) localized and directionally biased branch mortality associated with flashover among tree and sapling crowns, (2) mortality of lianas or saplings near lianas, and (3) scorched or wilting epiphytic and hemiepiphytic plants. The longitudinal trunk scars that are typical of lightning-damaged temperate trees were never observed in this study. Given the prevalence of communications towers worldwide, the lightning detection system described here could be implemented in diverse forest types. Data from multiple systems would provide an outstanding opportunity for comparative research on the ecological effects of lightning. Such comparative data are increasingly important given expected increases in lightning frequency with climatic change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5111-5122
Number of pages12
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


  • camera
  • disturbance
  • forest canopy
  • landscape
  • mortality
  • Panama
  • tree


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