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Lightning strikes to Chicago's skyscrapers: Sears, Hancock & Trump

Project documenting upward lightning strikes to Chicago's famous skyscrapers

Chicago triple lightning strike

ABOVE: Chicago Triple Lightning Strike The Sears (Willis) Tower, Trump Tower and John Hancock Center are all struck by lightning at the same time on June 30, 2014. See more images from this event

HD VIDEO: 17 skyscraper strikes in one night | Skyscraper strikes in 2006 and 2009

By DAN ROBINSON
Storm Chaser/Photographer
25 Years of Storm Chasing
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FAQ: Chicago skyscraper lightning FAQ

CHICAGO, IL - Lightning routinely strikes the Sears (Willis) Tower, the John Hancock building and the Trump Tower during many of the thunderstorms that pass over downtown Chicago. For 8 years, I worked on a project to document these upward lightning strikes to the skyscrapers. Between 2006 and 2014, I made ten separate expeditions to the city (initially from West Virginia, later from St. Louis) to capture imagery and video. While upward lightning is common and occurs many times per year, it is very difficult to know ahead of time when a storm capable of these type of discharges will pass over the city. Out of the 10 trips to Chicago, I captured upward strikes to the buildings on only four of them. I finally captured the imagery I was after during the June 30, 2014 event, after 8 years of attempts. You can see the full imagery of this event here.

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Here to help me bust this myth are Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, showing my footage of the Sears Tower getting struck by lightning twice during a July 2006 storm in Chicago. You can view the video clip at the Discovery Channel web site.

The following are images captured during the 8-year project (click each thumbnail to enlarge). NEW: See the imagery from the June 30, 2014 event!

Lightning striking the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center Telephoto view of lightning hitting the Sears Tower Lightning strike to the Sears Tower and Hancock building Lightning strikes the Sears Tower

Close-up of lightning striking the Sears Tower Lightning strikes the John Hancock Center Lightning striking the John Hancock building Daytime lightning striking the Sears Tower

Lightning strikes the Sears Tower in 2009 Lightning strikes the Sears Tower in 2009

Chicago skyscraper lightning FAQ

What type of lightning hits the buildings in Chicago?

Most lightning strikes to the three major skyscrapers in Chicago - the Sears Tower (Willis), John Hancock, and Trump Tower - are the distinct 'upward moving' or 'ground-to-cloud' lightning. See this detailed article on upward lightning. Conventional (downward) cloud-to-ground lightning can and does also hit the buildings downtown. Strikes to the shorter buildings (other than the tallest three) in the city are typically of the cloud-to-ground variety. In photos, cloud-to-ground lightning will consist of downward branching, while upward lightning will either be branchless or feature upward branching.

How often do the buildings in Chicago get struck?

Lightning strikes each of the three major skyscrapers in Chicago (Sears Tower, John Hancock, Trump Tower) anywhere from 50 to 100 times per year. It is common for a single thunderstorm to produce 2 or more discharge events to the structures. Events occur a few times a year where the buildings are hit a half a dozen times or more in one storm. Rare storms have been known to produce a dozen or more building strikes! The June 30, 2014 event produced 17 upward lightning flashes to the buildings.

Can lightning hit more than one building at a time?

Yes - this is a common characteristic of 'upward' lightning. Upward lightning strokes frequently initiate off of multiple tall objects (like towers and skyscrapers) at a time. The three major skyscrapers in Chicago are no different - two or three can be struck at one time. In fact, it is actually rare for a storm to not produce at least one double or triple simultaneous strike. The June 30, 2014 event produced two separate triple strike events and two double strikes. Most photos and video clips showing two or three of Chicago's skyscrapers getting hit by lightning simultaneously are authentic and accurate (IE, not 'Photoshopped' or comprised of multiple images).

Are the buildings damaged by all of the lightning strikes?

No - towers and skyscrapers are designed to handle numerous lightning strikes. The current is passed harmlessly through the structure to ground. Most towers/skyscrapers have a lightning conductor 'crown' frame at the top of the spires and antennas that are built to handle direct lightning strikes. When these 'crowns' are struck by lightning, the effect is like a powerful arc welder, producing a shower of sparks and little more than a pit or two on the surface of the metal. See up-close photos of lightning striking a TV tower tip.

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Related lightning topics:

Lightning Discharges to TV Towers, Skyscrapers and other Tall Structures
An in-depth look at ground-to-cloud or 'upward moving' lightning discharges to tall structures, including dramatic up-close imagery.
Lightning Protection Systems
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Do surge protectors provide total lightning protection?
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Lightning Safety
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Lightning and Trees
The effects of lightning strikes to trees.
Flashovers and Strikes to Power Lines
A commonly seen, but frequently misidentified phenomenon observed when lightning strikes an energized power line.
Lightning and Ipods, Walkmans and headphones
Will wearing an Ipod and headphones attract lightning?

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