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Lightning Strikes Empire State Building

March 29, 2019

The Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world from 1931, the year it was built, to 1972, when it lost its title to Chicago’s Willis Tower. Its towering height makes it a target for multiple lightning strikes every year. Let’s take a closer look at this impressive wonder of architecture and engineering, and what protects it from lightning strikes.

Lightning Rod Components

At the very top of the Empire State Building, adding to its already impressive 1,250-foot height, is a massive lightning rod. This device is simple, and made up of only three components.

  • A copper rod: The base of a lightning rod is always a single rod made of a conductive metal like copper or steel.
  • Wire: The Empire State Building’s lightning rod contains hundreds of feet of thick, well-insulated copper wire.
  • A grounded copper rod or grounded copper baseplate: This part of the rod is at ground level.

How can such a simple device protect an enormous building like this from the immense power of a lightning strike?

How a Lightning Rod Works

Lightning is electricity, and electricity wants to take the fastest route to the ground. In the case of something like the Empire State Building, the lightning will strike the lightning rod, since it is the tower’s highest point.

Once charged, the lightning will follow the copper wire down until it can get discharged into the ground safely. The lightning rod and wiring serves to divert the current to the exterior, largely to prevent electrical equipment upsets. People inside the large, mostly steel building (in the case of the empire state building) are at almost zero risk, unless a window or something were to break (then the glass would be a concern, but that’s it).

Your building doesn’t have to be 1,250 feet tall to benefit from installing a lightning rod. If your home is in a lightning-prone area, installing a lightning rod can protect your electronics and appliances from power surge by taking all the energy from the strike and discharging it safety into the ground. It is more effective than a surge protector, especially for close lightning strikes. It might get a little loud, though — a thunderclap from a close lightning strike can exceed 120 decibels.

What Happens When a Building Is Struck by Lightning?

The average lightning strike contains 15 million volts of electricity. That is more than enough power to fry anything you have plugged into an outlet, start fires and cause thousands of dollars in damage — especially in enormous structures like the Empire State Building.

Meteorologists estimate lightning strikes the surface of our planet 100 times every second. That’s more than 8 million strikes every day, and 3 billion every year.

What buildings get struck by lightning the most? Tall structures like the Empire State Building are especially vulnerable to lightning strikes because there is less of a gap between the cloud and the ground.

What Happens When Lightning Strikes the Empire State Building?

The Empire State Building gets struck by lightning between 25 and 100 times every year. The Empire State Building’s lightning rod protects the iconic structure itself, as well as the people inside, from the threat of fire and electrocution. Without a lightning rod, these strikes would ground themselves through the building’s wiring, or through the people working on one of its 103 floors, causing untold amounts of damage.

In the United States, lightning strikes cause more than 26,000 fires and between $5 and $6 billion in property damage every year. Without lightning rods, tall structures like the Empire State Building would need to have a fleet of engineers and construction workers on call to repair the damage after every strike, costing billions of dollars.

Keeping One of NYC’s Best-Known Landmarks Safe

Without the lightning rod at its peak, the Empire State Building would not be the stunning example of 1930s architecture it is today. The next time you’re lucky enough to be on the building’s observation deck, overlooking the New York City skyline, take a look up and appreciate what this simple copper rod does for everyone who works in the Empire State Building.

Beyond the Lightning Rod

Simple is better for the Empire State Building. But to guard aircraft, industrial complexes, golf courses, wind turbine farms, theme parks, and other high-risk locations from the potentially devastating and costly damage caused by lightning, more sophisticated systems are required.

NTS is an international leader in the development of sophisticated lightning protection systems—and it houses one of the most complete lightning simulation laboratories in the world. To learn more about best-in-class lightning protection services, speak with a lightning expert today—and you might be amazed at what you’ll discover.

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