Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
Weather, photography and the open roadClick for an important message
Storm Highway by Dan RobinsonClick for an important message

MYTH: Lightning always strikes the tallest object.

Important Message 30 Years of Storm Chasing & Photography Dan's YouTube Video Channel Dan's Twitter feed Dan's RSS/XML feed

TRUTH: Lightning can strike just about anywhere! The following is a zoomed-in area of a photo taken in Greentree, Pennsylvania of a cloud-to-ground lightning strike only 230 feet away:

(Click for full photo)

The lightning hit the ground only 50 feet away from the metal light pole on the left. Not only that, but under 200 feet from where the lightning struck ground is this four-story office building:

And take a look at this photo of lightning striking the side of a tower, more than 50 feet below its top in St. Albans, WV!

Another compelling example is this mountaintop location just north of downtown Charleston, WV (pictured below). A tall tower used by the airport is situated on the peak. On one occasion lightning bypassed the tower, which is much taller than the surrounding trees, and struck a tree less than 40 feet away! The tree sustained heavy bark damage and later died from its injuries. Below is a photo of the location:

Cloud-to-ground lightning strokes initiate high in thunderstorms, miles above the surface where ground objects have no effect. Even after initiation of the discharge, the downward-moving stepped leader is 'blind' to objects on the ground until it is very close to the ground, within 50 to 100 feet. At that distance, lightning will strike within the very small area it is already descending in, regardless of any objects nearby that would be thought to divert the strike. For example, a photograph exists of a lightning strike to the Merchandise Mart building in downtown Chicago, very close to the 1,700 foot tall Sears Tower.

Nonetheless, there is a small bit of truth to this myth. Extremely tall structures like towers and skyscapers are indeed more susceptible to strikes, because they significantly reduce the insulating air gap beween cloud and ground. In addition, very tall structures and towers often inititate ground-to-cloud lightning discharges that start at the structure tip and propagate upward into the cloud (read more about this "upward moving" lightning).

If the lightning in the photo above were to have come down just a little closer to the pole, then it might have connected to the pole in its last reaches toward earth. If the nearby office building had been tall skyscraper, it too may have drawn this strike to it. But to lightning, 'small' objects on the ground (like the light pole, and even the office building) are almost 'invisible' until the descending stepped leader gets very close to them, possibly less than 50 to 100 feet or so:

Cloud-to-Ground Lightning

This extreme-slow-motion animation depicts the stepped leader descending to meet the upward leaders extending from the ground, and the first and subsequent return strokes. In reality, this whole process takes only a small fraction of a second.

In other words, cloud-to-ground lightning is 'blind' to the details of earth's surface and doesn't 'make a decision' on what it will strike until it has almost reached the ground. If something tall happens to be at that exact location, it may very well take the hit. But if that tall object is just a little farther away, the lightning will just bypass it and hit the ground, or anything (or anyone) else that might be in the way!

What does all this mean? Don't assume that you're safe from lightning if there is something tall or large nearby.

Related myths include those about lightning only striking metal (or conductive) objects, and the myth that carrying, wearing or standing near anything metal will increase chances of being hit by lightning.

READ: More Weather Myths | Weather Library Home

Storm chaser and photographer Dan Robinson
About the Author: Dan Robinson has been a storm chaser, photographer and cameraman for 30 years. His career has involved traveling around the country covering the most extreme weather on the planet including tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, floods and winter storms. Dan has been extensively published in newspapers, magazines, web articles and more, and has both supplied footage for and appeared in numerous television productions and newscasts. He has also been involved in the research community, providing material for published scientific journal papers on tornadoes and lightning. Dan also holds an active Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA (Part 107) for commercial drone operation.

See Also:

FAQ: If metal doesn't attract lightning, then why do laboratory sparks always hit the metallic objects?
FAQ: What can the outdoorsperson do to reduce the risk of getting hit by lightning?
MYTH: Small metal objects attract lightning, and I'm safer outside without any metal nearby.
MYTH: Lightning only strikes good conductors.

30 Years of Storm Chasing & Photography
Important Message
Dan's YouTube Video Channel
Dan's Twitter feed
Dan's RSS/XML feed

GO: Home | Storm Expeditions | Photography | Extreme Weather Library | Stock Footage | Blog

Featured Weather Library Article:

Lightning myths
Take a look at these common lightning myths. You might be surprised!
More Library Articles

All content © Dan Robinson. All usage requires a paid license - please contact Dan for inquiries.

Web Site Design and Internet Marketing by CIS Internet