Lightning can be incredibly terrifying and dangerous. In any given year, somewhere between 6,000 and 24,000 people die from lightning strikes. Being in a skyscraper during a thunderstorm can be pretty scary, too, particularly if you don’t know whether or not the building you’re in can withstand a lightning strike.
Skyscrapers are designed to withstand lightning. Engineers utilize Lightning Protection Systems (LPS) to prevent damage to skyscrapers and protect the people inside. The LPS attracts lightning bolts and sends them into the Earth, where the energy can dissipate safely.
This technology has been used since Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment, and since then, it has been our primary lightning protection method. It has proven to be a good investment for those who want to protect the structural integrity of their buildings and the lives inside. In the rest of this article, we’ll take a look at how this system works and share some new and exciting technology that could prove to be even more effective than the conventional LPS.
What Happens When Lightning Strikes a Skyscraper?
According to the National Weather Service in the United States, a typical lightning bolt carries about 300 million volts of energy. All that energy, moving at a rate of 270,000 mph (434,523 kph) — that’s a monumentally scary thought. It’s no wonder then that a single lightning bolt can do quite a lot of damage.
It wouldn’t make sense to have skyscrapers built so high, and cost so much money, only to have them be constantly damaged by lightning and to risk the lives of those inside. Fortunately, skyscrapers are equipped with lightning rods, usually situated at the highest point of the building, to make it as plausible a target as is possible for the lightning to strike.
A bolt of lightning strikes the lightning rod at the top of the skyscraper, then the current passes through a series of cables on and around the roof and is directed down toward the ground, where it dissipates safely in the Earth.
Similar to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, some buildings have lightning rods that actively draw lightning toward them. They do so by emitting positive ions that attract the negative ions found in storm clouds that create lightning. This makes it even less likely that lightning will strike where it isn’t wanted.
Even lightning rods that don’t emit positive ions are effective because lightning follows the path of least resistance. Lightning rods offer a path for the lightning that gives much less resistance than the air, which is why lightning so often strikes metal and why metal is used to make lightning rods.
Lightning actually poses a greater risk to the systems and infrastructure we’ve put in place than to human life itself. Lightning strikes can cause disruptive blackouts and expensive-to-repair damage to any structures in its path, not to mention all the damage wrought each year to nature itself.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2019 alone lightning caused more than $41 million in property damage in the United States. If lightning strikes a skyscraper without a Lightning Protection System, structural damage is possible, as well as damage to any system in the building that uses electricity.
Conventional lightning rods aren’t the only protection we have, though. New technology, the laser lightning rod, seems to have quite a promising future in keeping skyscrapers and people safe from lightning.
What Is a Laser Lightning Rod?
More recent developments in technology, like the Laser Lightning Rod Project, aim to do what conventional Lightning Protection Systems do but more efficiently and safely: by using lasers.
The Laser Lightning Rod Project has been testing its laser system in Säntis, Switzerland. This technology has some promising potential in the field of lightning safety and even in things like allowing supersonic aircraft to fly faster.
Experts have shown that by using a femtosecond laser system to emit lasers at the rate of 1,000 pulses per second, a preferential path of travel can be formed in the air to direct lightning away from people and critical infrastructure and toward a safe location where the energy can dissipate without risk.
A laser lightning rod is a laser that shoots pulses of light through the air, ionizing it and leaving a plasma column in its wake. This creates a channel through which lightning can easily travel.
In the same way that conventional lightning rods offer a path of less resistance for lightning bolts to travel through, the channel created by the laser lighting rod, shot up into the atmosphere, allows the lightning to quickly and easily find a path to the ground.
The researchers behind these developments are doing what they can to help us all, advancing technology rapidly and making the world a safer place all at the same time.
Is It Safe To Be in a Skyscraper During a Thunderstorm?
The risk of death from being struck by lightning is actually pretty low, as 90% of people struck by lightning survive. Still, it’s not a comfortable thought. Contemplating the potential of a skyscraper being blown to pieces in a thunderstorm with me inside? Much less so. Thankfully, modern engineering has come to the rescue.
It’s safe to be in skyscrapers during thunderstorms. The Lightning Protection Systems installed on skyscrapers are built well and designed to keep both the structure and everyone inside of it safe from lightning. As buildings grow taller, so too do Lightning Protection Systems grow more advanced.
Initially, it seems that being hundreds or thousands of feet up in the sky during a thunderstorm is a terrible idea. However, both old and emerging technologies have proven to be more than capable of redirecting lightning to protect us and that which is precious to us.
However, it’s not as though lightning has been tamed, and exercising proper caution can help reduce the costs of lightning damage. Luckily, there are plenty of different things we can do to have the highest chance of protecting ourselves and our infrastructure from lightning damage.