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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 07/21/2009

Washington's Amazing Lightning Rod

By Kevin Ambrose

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The Washington Monument is struck by lightning during a thunderstorm on the evening of July 1, 2005. The lightning bolt is striking the side of the Washington Monument while a lightning streamer, reaching out from the tip of the monument, falls short of completing the circuit with the main bolt. By CWG photographer Kevin Ambrose

Of the thousands of photographs that I've taken over the years, one stands alone in my mind as my most unique shot -- lightning striking the Washington Monument. The Washington Monument is actually a frequent target of lightning bolts, sometimes getting struck multiple times during a single thunderstorm, but it's challenging and potentially dangerous to try to capture the image with a camera.

I took the above picture during the evening of July 1, 2005, from the safety of the Jefferson Memorial. It was quite an unexpected strike since the storm was over Maryland at the time, with only distant lightning flashes on the horizon. Suddenly, the bolt jumped miles ahead of the storm and struck the Washington Monument from the side. The thunder was explosive, startling everyone around me. I can only imagine how the people around the Washington Monument reacted to the strike.

Keep reading for another photo of lightning striking the Washington Monument and information about the structure's lightning protection system,,,

Lightning strikes the Washington Monument, June 7, 1937. The 555-foot marble and granite monument has been a frequent target of lightning strikes. Courtesy NOAA.

The Washington Monument's aluminum top and copper points have been blunted by 50 years of lightning strikes, November 19, 1934. Courtesy Library of Congress.

At the completion of the Washington Monument in December 1884, a small and very expensive aluminum pyramid was placed atop the monument to function as a lightning rod. Aluminum was a very precious metal in 1884 and was chosen because of its white color and lack of tarnish. In less than a year, however, lightning had cracked the aluminum pyramid. Eight copper points were then added to the pyramid in 1885 to help make it a better lightning rod. Despite looking like a "crown of thorns," the copper points were not visible from ground level. Over the years, the lightning protection system for the Washington Monument has been improved multiple times.

Lightning doesn't always strike the tallest object. This lightning bolt, associated with a severe thunderstorm on August 27, 2003, missed the Washington Monument and struck the ground nearby, within a few hundred yards of the monument. Photo taken from the safety of a parked truck, by CWG photographer Kevin Ambrose.

By Kevin Ambrose  | July 21, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Photography  
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Awesome shots Kevin.

I was stuck on the Mall in a thunderstorm a couple years ago and thought that staying a short distance from the Washington Monument would be the safest - close enough to draw away any strikes, far away enough not to get hit with them. That last pic tells me how wrong I was!

Posted by: mmurphy70 | July 21, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I'd be more interested in any material on isokeraunics--the study of thunderstorm frequency over a given area. If there is actual global warming in progress, the number of days per year with recorded thunderstorms should increase in most areas. I suspect this is occurring in the Washington Metro area at present; historically, we've had around 27 or 28 thunderstorm days per year, fewer, by the way, than Eau Claire, Wisconsin [35 days]; the difference being due to the number of days per year Washington experiences convection-dampening Atlantic airflow from the east or northeast.

Another group, who may follow isokeraunics with interest, would include the staff meteorologists with Disney Corporation. One statistic of interest here is that Disneyland in Anaheim, CA has only 5 to 8 thunderstorm days per year, while Walt Disney World near Orlando, FL is located near the most thunderstorm-prone area in the country with 100+ thunderstorm days in an average year. Another lightning-prone area in the continental U.S. is the Truchas Peak/Sangre De Cristo area in the Rocky Mountains of northeast New Mexico with over 70 days per year having thunderstorms. Port Angeles, WA is probably the least lightning-prone site in the continental U.S., while Alaska and Hawaii tend generally to be thunderstorm-free [though this time of year is the thunderstorm season in interior Alaska].

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 21, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Gosh.. lightning striking just to the side of the monument. Thinking that there must be a pretty thick cable connecting the ground to the top of the monument, I too am perplexed why the path of least resistance wouldn't be the lightning rod? I guess that brings up the argument of "what good are lightning rods" if this kind of thing happens?

Posted by: k9frizb | July 21, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I wish you would publish some more pictures in this vein - yours and the last photo are incredible.

How about other famous DC landmarks and lightning strikes? I would think that the Statue of Freedom on top the US Capitol would be a prime target. I also imagine that the National Cathedral and the new Air Force Memorial would also be favorites for lightning.

Posted by: dre7861 | July 21, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Amazing pictures

When a graduate student, myself and others would head to the roof of the 16 story Green Bldg at MIT at the first signs of a thunder storm. On the roof was a clear Plexiglas dome from which we could experience astounding displays of lightning as it harmlessly struck the lightning rods mounted just a few yards away. Unfortunately, I have no pictures to offer of these unforgettable experiences.

In regard to the unexpected lightning strike from a distant storm, recall that Bolts from the Blue can travel more than 25 miles away from the originating thunderstorm cloud.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | July 21, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the comments. Regarding lightning hitting the side of the Washington Monument, I think there are steel reinforcements located at certain areas along the sides of the monument that can serve as focal points for lightning strikes. I'm not 100% certain, but that is my theory.

I don't have any other photos of lightning bolts striking buildings or monuments in DC, but I could always put together a "best of" DC lightning photo post for a future posting.

Posted by: Kevin-CapitalWeatherGang | July 21, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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