Lightning is an indicator and a driver of climate change. Here, using satellite observations of lightning flash rate and ERA5 reanalysis, we find that the spatial pattern of summer lightning over northern circumpolar regions exhibits a strong positive relationship with the product of convective available potential energy (CAPE) and precipitation. Applying this relationship to Climate Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 climate projections for a high-emissions scenario (RCP8.5) shows an increase in CAPE (86 ± 22%) and precipitation (17 ± 2%) in areas underlain by permafrost, causing summer lightning to increase by 112 ± 38% by the end of the century (2081–2100). Future flash rates at the northern treeline are comparable to current levels 480 km to the south in boreal forests. We hypothesize that lightning increases may induce a fire–vegetation feedback whereby more burning in Arctic tundra expedites the northward migration of boreal trees, with the potential to accelerate the positive feedback associated with permafrost soil carbon release.