Lightning striking the skyscrapers of Chicago.
What exactly happens when lightning strikes a skyscraper? Let’s take the Empire State Building as an example. The iconic Art Deco tower – a veritable old-fashioned gentleman among today’s skyscrapers – was, according to some sources, designed as a giant lightning rod from the day it opened its doors in 1931. In fact, scientists from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers recorded every single one of the Empire State Building’s lightning strikes between 1934 and 1937 on film, in order to determine the speed with which lightning strikes (10,000 miles per second, apparently, although that figure is still open to debate). The recordings continued as, in the words of one weather blog, “scientists measured some of the very first oscillographic readings of lightning currents there using tethered balloons in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.”
This fantastic image of the Empire State Building being hit by lightning was taken on June 9, 2011. A violent thunderstorm passed through the city that brought torrential rains and hail. Whether this marked the last storm of spring or the first of summer, it seems the weather gods were out to give New Yorkers some excitement!
In a nutshell, skyscrapers are steel cages comprising various compartments that divide and subdivide the energy from a lightning strike until it is safely guided to the ground where it spreads out. A skyscraper thus functions in a similar way to a Faraday cage – a shield or enclosed space made of conducting material – that, like a plane, protects people from natural electric sparks such as lightning. Safe in this knowledge, sit back and relax while you enjoy these images of seven of the world’s tallest and most iconic skyscrapers being struck by lightning, shown in order of their height.
7. Q1, Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia
As well as surfing, theme parks and hot air ballooning, visitors to Australia’s popular Gold Coast can add another attraction to their thrill list: going to the suburb of Surfers Paradise and watching lightning strike the Q1 landmark – while snugly inside it. Inspired by the Olympic torch and standing at a whopping 1,058 feet (322.5 m), the Q1 is the world’s fifth tallest residential building. As one source claims: “Visitors like to lay out on the floor during thunderstorms to watch lightning strike the Q1′s impressive 97.7 meter spire.” Judging by this incredible image, it must be one heck of an experience, and certainly not one for the faint of heart!
6. The Center, Hong Kong
We’re lucky to be able to include in our list this award-winning photograph, which was featured in the 2010 National Geographic Photography Contest. It truly is a spectacular capture of lightning striking Hong Kong’s The Center during a storm on September 13, 2009. What makes the lightning and the skyline appear almost pixelated is not a camera error but a reflection of the lightning bolt in the raindrops on the window. At 1,135 feet (346 m), The Center is no. 31 on the list of the world’s tallest buildings.
5. Empire State Building, New York City, NY, USA
The 1,454-foot (443-m) Empire State Building is struck by lightning about 23 times a year. Surprising, perhaps, that this number is not higher, given the building’s prominence on the city’s skyline and the number of thunderstorms that occur in New York – to say nothing of the fact that the building’s antenna was designed as a lightning rod!
In this picture from August 19, 2011, we can see the Empire State Building lit up in the Indian tricolor (most likely in honor of the Indian Independence Day on August 15) and being hit by lightning. Stuck at New Jersey’s Hoboken train and bus terminal because of the severe thunderstorm, photographer Sugata Banerji made the best of the situation and set up his tripod. Good thinking!
Another bolt of lightning striking the Empire State Building, this time on August 8, 2011 during another severe storm. On the night of April 12 of the same year, the building was even struck three times in a row during a bad thunderstorm. So much for the old saying that lightning never strikes twice! It sure does, so be aware!
4. Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), Chicago, IL, USA
Here’s an image of the Willis Tower being struck by lightning on April 4, 2010. At 1,451 feet (442 m), the building formerly known as the Sears Tower is the ninth tallest skyscraper in the world and is thus bound to have its fair share of lightning strikes. A couple of years before this, when an observer had asked how the antenna could withstand the lightning, Tom Skilling, WGN-TV’s chief meteorologist, offered a helpful explanation. Skilling said: “The antenna is not being hit directly – the appearance not withstanding. Instead, a corona of charged ions which pools up around the antenna is interacting with a charge descending from above to give off the light we see in these lightning strikes.” Interesting!
Asked whether luck or patience led to this spectacular shot of lightning striking the Sears Tower on June 21, 2009, photographer Jeff Minarik said: “[A] little bit of both. I was taking a few 20-second exposures to try and catch some lightning and as the shutter opened on this shot, the lightning struck, so I guess it was more luck.” However it came about, the combination of right time, right place and long exposure shot make this a one-in-a-million photograph.
3. Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Number six on the list of world’s tallest skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers have a height of 1,483 feet (452 m). Like the other skyscrapers in this article, they too see their fair share of lightning strikes over the course of a year – with this photograph taken on April 29, 2010. Though the reflection of the room and its lights on the window pane takes away a bit from the image, the dramatic, sideways forking of the lightning against the towers more than makes up for it. For a real-time feel of the split-second event, make sure to check out this video.
With this close-up, taken on October 28, 2007, we have an even more dramatic impression of lightning striking Kuala Lumpur’s twin skyscrapers. It’s like a needle poking straight into an electric socket, isn’t it? Maybe this image could be used to explain the dangers of electricity (and playing with it) to children…
2. Taipei 101, Taipei, Taiwan
Our number two is the number five when it comes to its standing among the world’s tallest skyscrapers, at an impressive 1,670 feet (509 m). This incredible lightning strike – which seems to be directly attacking the tower’s antenna – was captured on August 3, 2007. The Taipei 101 has also earned the moniker of world’s tallest green building, due to its recycled water system. Now if only the energy of that lightning strike could somehow be converted and used for the building’s power needs…
1. Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE
It’s fitting that the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is number one on our list because, standing at a colossal 2,717 feet (828 m), it is also the tallest skyscraper on Earth. In this image, we can see two bolts of lightning seemingly crashing at once into the top of the building against an amazing purple sky.
Here, we have a different angle of the Burj Khalifa being struck by lightning. Sticking out above not only Dubai but all the other skyscrapers in the world, it’s almost as if the building is deliberately offering itself up for ‘electrocution’ by as many of the sky’s lightning bolts as possible; giving itself up to the thunderstorm, so to speak. Come to think of it, given that Dubai is located in the Arabian Desert, this theory might not be so far off. After all, lightning can’t be an everyday occurrence in a place with an annual rainfall of only 250 mm (9.84 in)…
As we have seen, lightning striking tall, iconic buildings is an impressive sight, and one that eyewitnesses will surely find hard to forget. Luckily for us, some of them were armed with cameras at the time, providing us with these electrifying images – and a wonderful opportunity to share the moment.