A common idiom used throughout the world is “lightning never strikes the same place twice” and while the phrase is typically reserved for rare events, lightning striking tall objects numerous times should not be one of them.
The National Weather Service estimates that the Empire State Building is struck by lighting on average 25 times per year. Lightning data from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) from 2016-2021 indicates that multiple large attractions at Walt Disney World were struck in upwards of 9-10 times per year on average.
Another object that is repeatedly struck by lighting is the WKBN 27 News tower right here in Youngstown, OH. Standing at 1,444 feet, the tower is an imposing figure on the Youngstown skyline and is often a target for cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning strikes. The tower was struck again by a bolt last Saturday during a strong thunderstorm event.
Have you ever wondered why tall objects attract lightning so often? Well, now you have an answer.
Caption: Lightning striking the WKBN 27 News Broadcast tower in Youngstown, OH. Video taken by Tyler Berry.
First, it is important to understand what lightning is. In its simplistic form, lightning is an electrical spark between clouds and air or ground. Typically, the origin of lightning in a thunderstorm carries a negative charge while the ground carries a positive charge. When a strong thunderstorm forms over a location, the attraction between the opposite charges increases until “breakdown” which is when the electrical current is completed and lightning forms.
The closer the distance between the opposite charges, the stronger the attraction becomes between them according to Coulomb’s Law and the more likely the attraction reaches breakdown and thus lightning. Therefore, taller objects are more likely to be struck by lightning because because they are closer to the thunderstorm cloud and which increases the attraction between opposite charges.
So, the next time your friend tells you that “lightning never strikes the same place twice” you can tell them about Charles-Augustin de Coulomb’s Law and bring some electricity to the conversation.
P.S. Remember when I said that the region where lightning originates is thunderstorms clouds is typically comprised of negative charge? This is not always the case. While it is true that most CG lightning strikes have negative charge, positive CG strikes do exist. In fact, positive CG lightning strikes can be indicative of severe thunderstorm potential.
What is the reason for positive/negative charge? Well, that is a story for a different time. Next time you see me out, you can ask me and I will teach you the wonders of non-inductive charging theory.