A lightning strike is an impressive and dangerous act of nature. A very large variety of examples is known when lightnings damaged people's health and property. However, in separate instances, lack of the lightning protection or errors in its design led to catastrophic consequences. These instances have been left in the history as the examples of natural forces and human carelessness.
Every day, about 10 million lightning strikes happen on the Earth. In the middle latitudes of Russia, up to 500 strikes may take place for an hour of a strong storm. On average, the lightning voltage is 100 mln volts, and its length may exceed 10 km with the plasma temperature exceeding that on the Sun’s surface. This is a powerful natural "weapon". The number of lightnings grows along with the global warming. Therefore, the historical experience of the previous lightning-related accidents allows to rationally evaluate the risks associated with the savings on the lightning protection.
In large countries, lightning strikes result in deaths of many people every year. But usually, these are the tragic cases involving one or two people. However, in 1807, the lightning killed over 300 city residents in Luxembourg. The lightning got into the weapon warehouse during the strong storm. Despite the fact that it was located in the fortress having strong walls, a powerful discharge immediately ignited the barrels containing the gunpowder. As a result, the air blast and the subsequent fires destroyed two city blocks, which led to the death of several hundred people.
This case is considered to be the most fatal lightning strike in the history. It shows how important the lightning protection for hazardous objects, such as storage facilities for fuel and lubrication material and other chemicals.
No lightning protection was provided in the times of Napoleon. But today, it is impossible to imagine such facilities without high-quality rod or wire lightning protection.
Wire lightning protection of a petrochemical facility
Social Catastrophe in New York
In 1977, because of the lightning, New York survived the black-out which put the city into chaos for 24 hours. Mass robberies, turmoils, broken shop windows, groups of aggressive people in the streets, many people stuck in elevators and got into dangerous situations, the lightning strikes led to the catastrophe that has become a black page in the New York history.
Coincidence of circumstances that led to the black-out is of special interest. It began with the lightning strike into the substation on the Hudson river once in the July evening. This substation provided the HVPL energy conversion into the voltage for consumer grids. Re-closers could restore the grid operation. However, in less than 10 minutes, the lightning struck again, and this time, the line was lost that supplied 900 MW from the nuclear plant. It could not be restored remotely, and there was no personnel at the substation to make it manually.
As a result, two other major power lines were overloaded. This situation was not irreversible, but the lightning strike occurred for the third time, to the substation in Yonkers. Two critical lines were shut down, and only one of them was put into operation again. Ultimately, two remaining lines were overloaded. For about an hour, the power company Con Edison struggled to restore the grid operation, but the HVPL wires were so much heated and loosened dangerously, the grid was shut down, and the major part of New York and a part of its suburban areas were put into darkness. They could only restore the power supply of the city fully the next day. All of this time, chaos had existed in the city. Over one thousand fires occurred, new cars were stolen from car salons, hundreds of shops were robbed, including those in Broadway. 550 policemen were injured in the turmoils, and over 4.5 thousand looters were arrested by police. Thousands of car drivers and subway passengers became closed in the tunnels without ventilation. Fortunately, the turmoils did not lead to the murders, but damages from three lightning strikes cost about 1.2 billion USD based on the current dollar exchange rate.
The high-quality lightning protection systems with the correctly installed wire shields could prevent the catastrophic consequences. Although, according to the administration of the power company Con Edison, three lightning strikes one after another are an exceptional coincidence of circumstances.
Lightning Vs. Data Center
When Microsoft and Amazon opened data centers in Ireland, they relied upon the use of a cool local climate for cooling servers. In 2011, this climate led to the storm that was a challenge for the information structure of the major global companies. The event happened on Sunday: a transformer near data centers was exploded by the lightning strike. Despite the availability of back-up generating systems, the power failure was sufficient for the serious failure in the operation of the concentrators of data coming from various countries. As a result of this, the clients have lost their access to the medical services of Amazon, there were failures in Microsoft business applications as well as in the applications of other companies. The data were saved using the back-up copies, but it took about 2 days to restore large data volumes. The Microsoft center of 350 million USD worth has become the victim of the lightning that made the most complex computational production dead. Thus, even a short failure caused by the lightning may be sufficient for serious failures. Therefore, it is required to use the respective devices providing the protection against various lightning damage effects.
In 2015, the rock festival Rock am Ring was held in the German city of Mendig during the strong storm and attracted more than dozens thousand of fans. The lightning got into the high-rise metal structures on the stage. Eight stage workers were among the first injured persons, but high voltage of the atmospheric discharge passed through the metal gates, wires, wet tent tissue and water, thus injuring many people. 33 people were severely injured. The specifics of the high-voltage strike led to dangerous and panic-raising side effects such as sharp muscle weakness, cardiovascular failure. Fortunately, the rescuers started their work immediately and the crowd did not panic.
This event is illustrative. The metal roof and frames of the stage structures were not sufficient to protect from a lightning. The organizers have learnt their lessons from this incident.
In the photos taken at the Rock am Ring festival in 2019, high lightning protection masts can be seen.
In similar situations, the use of the lightning protection, e.g. modular, is required. Otherwise, injuries and cancellation of expensive events may take place.
Endless Fields and an Unexpected Strike
In November 2018, the Australian farmers encountered the event that was not seen before. In the night, above several fields, "dry" lightning strikes occurred, i.e. without the rain that usually follows the storm. As a result, in the middle of the harvesting season, wheat fields have got on fire, the fires have combined, and the flame has covered about twenty fields. In separate locations, the fire band width reached 3 km, and the length was up to 8 km.
In the fires, about 3000 hectares of the grain cultures were lost, and the farmers had hoped to collect a good harvest that year. The first harvesting showed, on average, about 3.5 tonnes of wheat from a hectare, which was a good indicator compared to the failed 2017. However, the lightnings led to the damage for a total amount of about 3.6 million USD.
Fire in the Australian fields, November 2018
The damage could have been much more, but fortunately, the wind was weak, and the farmers worked in good coordination and could isolate the fire. But the example of a "dry" storm shows that we need an area cleaned off the plants around the lightning arrester, because not in all cases, the rain may extinguish the fire foci. Moreover, we can expect trouble without any clear signs of misfortune, such as a strong storm.
History on Fire
The historical buildings are often affected by the lightnings. This is associated not only with architectural monuments but also with old buildings, which are used as production premises. The old buildings are essentially damaged from lightnings and the subsequent fires; therefore, you should pay special attention to its lightning protection.
In 1984, the lightning got into the second in terms of ancietry gothic cathedral in Europe located in York. This unique building had been built during 250 years, and it took several minutes for the lightning to put wooden intermediate floors on fire and destroy unique stained glass windows. They could only extinguish the fire by the morning.
Fire in the York Cathedral in 1984. The cathedral after the reconstruction is shown on the top.
The fire took place in the night, and the evening was hot and dry. The damage amounted to 2.25 million pounds. The investigation determined that the lighting got through the roof to the metal distribution shield installed in the tower. The availability of the metal structures under the wooden roof should have been considered in the lightning protection installation.
Fire Storm in the Warehouse
In July 2009, in the Jim Beam whiskey warehouse in Kentucky, the USA, a fire occurred, which was caused, according to the preliminary data, by the lightning strike during the storm. The fire was extremely difficult and led to the direct damage amounted to more than 216 mln USD due to the fact that 5.2 mln liters of alcoholic products have burnt. Moreover, valuable equipment has also burnt, e.g. tractor engines and trailers.
Fire has completely destroyed a warehouse
The alcohol warehouse ignition is a challenging situation. The flame from the burning spirit vapors and wooden barrels is so strong that adjacent buildings are also easily put on fire. This is exactly what happened in Kentucky: the adjacent warehouse started to burn. But extinguishing of the main fire source leads to the environment contamination with alcohol. Earlier, in a similar fire in another warehouse in Kentucky, fish died in the adjacent water body, since the water and alcohol mix penetrated the soil and water intoxicating living organisms.
Therefore, in the Jim Beam warehouse, fire fighters tried to prevent the fire distribution but did not extinguish the main fire source. Hence, the fire was active for over five years and destroyed the warehouse completely. Due to the alcohol accumulation in the concrete basement, a less strong fire continued for several more days. Heat in the location was so strong that it melted the plastic parts on fire engines.
Such warehouses are very sensitive to fires, and the automated fire extinguishing systems should be protected from the lightning strikes.
Protection Symbol that is Hard to Protect
The statue of Jesus Christ in Rio-de-Janeiro is one of seven world wonders that attracts about 2 million tourists every year. This statue is made of reinforced concrete and stone and is located at the altitude of more than 700 m over the sea level. It is not surprising that in the region with many storms, the statue is affected by the lightning strikes.
Lightnings strike the statue four or five times a year, and usually the discharges get to the statue's hands spread in the protection gesture. Photographers from all over the world constantly look for such picturesque images
The lightning destruction of the statue occurs permanently, the lightning protection was repeatedly improved with additional lightning rods. Currently, the main protection elements are located in the statue hands. They are provided as vertical rods with a horizontal lightning arrester band. However, the statue structure and location do not allow for its full protection without disturbing the object artistic value. Especially strong strikes destroy the stone, as it happened in 2014, when a finger was broken down from the statue's hand. A special stone is being stored for the statue repair, but it is very expensive to renew the lightning protection and coating. For example, in 2010, the restoration works took 2010 million USD, whereas the major repaired damage was inflicted by the lightnings. But already in 2014, a new major repair was required. In some sense, the statue in Rio-de-Janeiro is a symbol for the permanent expensive struggle with nature.
At the end of August 2009, the lightning, during the strong storm with the rain, got into the hangar at the military base of Kirkenes in Norway. The hangar was protected, but due to the coincidence of circumstances, the lightning passed in the metal structures of the hangar and the metal protection and got to the bomb remained after the Second World War. The hangar was partially destroyed and the helicopter was damaged. Fortunately, the bomb was not very powerful, and the base personnel was not injured.
Consequences of the lightning strike and the subsequent explosion
It is a common situation for Kirkenes to locate a "war echo", since the town was bombed for over three hundred times, and it is one of the most damaged towns in Europe after the war. But it happens very rarely when the lightning explodes a hidden bomb. It is unlikely that the investigation would choose this version as the major one; however, the strike point was captured by the soldier who was filming the strong rain and storm using his smartphone. The incident in Kirkenes reminds that, during the installation of the lightning protection, we have to check where the conductors will lead the potential lightning charge to.
One Lightning Vs. One Million People
The major grids cut off due to lightning strikes do not happen often, i.e. they happen once in ten years. But the major black-out due to only one strike is a rare event since modern grids have the protection against lightnings.
However, such incidents happen sometimes, which explains the need for the reliable lightning protection for each important grid section.
In summer 2019, only one lightning strike in the UK left over 1 million people without electricity and led to cancellation or delay of 1,500 trains. This led to significant losses. Airports and a major hospital were left without electricity, several thousand of people flooded train stations thus creating the safety threat. The incident led to sharp debates, since one lightning strike must not affect the national grids in this scale
Although this happened. The lightning led to the power line failure between the offshore wind station near Hornsey and gas electrical station Little Barford. The line is only 160 km long, but the national electrical grid could not compensate for the current loss from two generating capacities at once. Moreover, the lightning strike damaged a part of independent generators, which complicated the emergency power supply and aggravated the situation.
The black-out was very quick: within several seconds, the national grid cut off 5% consumers to prevent the black-out on a national scale. The energy was absent for about an hour in some regions, the transport grid was affected most of all, since the train schedule was interfered. In a half of cases, it was required to transfer engineers to the train stop location.
The scale and damage were significant, and they have not been evaluated to the full extent until present. One of the reasons includes the distributed generating capacities and the complicated process of prediction of their impact to the grid. Anyway, the error in the lightning protection design was expensive: only one lightning nearly led to the national power grid failure and social and economic crisis. It is obvious that the lightning protection should be in a good working order in all grid sections, including the ones that are not considered as key.
The Opposite Example. An Invisible Strike
The cases shown above are examples of how the lightning protection allowed the strike. But you should not think that there is no chance to minimize risks. The example may include the case of the expensive data center of the Credit Union of Florida that serves about 1,5 million transactions per month.
The building is located in a region characterized by large amount of storms. Therefore, the data center was designed and built in accordance with all requirements to the power quality. All wires had an improved protection, the equipment was earthed, a modern low-ohmic powerful lightning protection system was installed on the building with the multi-level protection against the voltage surges. Moreover, the utilities between the data centers were based upon the fiber optic cables instead of the copper wires. All of these measures were not ineffective and paid for themselves many times.
Once, after the storm, one of the data center technicians identified that a back-up 250 kW generator is operating. He called a technical service specialist asking to switch off the generator. The technician thought that the generator was triggered as a result of an error, because it had to be shut off automatically as soon as the automation equipment would record the normal power supply. After moving to the incident location, the technical service specialist servicing the center infrastructure was surprised to find a piece of melted metal instead of the power energy meter.
The parts of the meter exploded by the lightning could not be found
It occurred that the lightning got into the 480 V feeding cable, destroyed the meter and directed the discharge to the emergency switch and generator. But due to the reliable lightning protection, it was limited to the broken meter, and the sensitive and expensive equipment of the data center was not damaged. Moreover, personnel working at that moment in the center territory did not even notice an accident.
Overbalance in a Permanent War
Summer 2019 was very hot almost in the whole planet. In some countries, the extended storms with dozens of thousand lightnings striking the large territory were observed. For example, in the British Columbia (Canada), at the beginning of September 2019, 11 thousand lightning strikes were recorded during one night. Despite the significant power of lightnings, the effective protection mechanisms against this natural phenomenon exist. The modern lightning protection minimizes risks for people and property.
The positive example is Singapore, where during about 175 days a year, storms with lightnings are recorded. 16 lightning strikes occur per each square meter of the city. However, the number of people injured as a result of lightning strikes in this country is compared to the similar indicator for less dangerous regions. The high-quality lightning protection protects people and infrastructure in Singapore, thus providing an overbalance in a permanent battle of humans with the dangerous natural phenomenon.
Do you need a consultation for design or installation of the earthing system and lightning protection? Contact ZANDZ Technical Center!