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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Tower of Power

By Phil Plait

Holy amperage! Gifted photographer Michael Shainblum (who has been featured on this blog before, like here and here and here and here) just sent me a note that he took this outrageously jaw-dropping photo on Feb. 12, 2014. That’s the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, located in downtown Dubai, United Arab Emirates. During the storm Shainblum stood in the rain while taking time-lapse footage using two cameras. One camera got soaked during an unusually heavy downpour—but Shainblum saw the big lightning strike and was able to get this photo off the camera showing it perfectly.

(Update, 19:30 UTC Feb. 13, 2014: Photographer Brian Hawkins, who was with Shainblum at the time, created a short time-lapse animation of the strike on the building. It's equally astonishing:

Thanks to Hawkins for letting me know!)

Looking at this more carefully, I think most of the fainter trails are not actually lightning bolts, but upward streamers. Lightning moves downward from a cloud through a series of "step leaders," short strokes of ionized gas. When a leader nears the surface, the ground reacts by sending up a short streamer. If the two connect, BANG! Leaders and streamers are much weaker than the actual lightning stroke, so I suspect that's what we're seeing, especially since so many of the zig-zagged streamers are connected to the ground but not the cloud. Amazing.

Given the way the Internet can be, on his 500px page Shainblum describes what happened and notes “This photograph is 100% real!”

Given his history, I believe him. Sometimes luck favors the persistent. But then, that’s what luck is: Small chances x time x persistence x opportunity. A lot of stuff is squished into that last variable, but I’m glad Shainblum made this happen. I expect to be seeing this picture all over the Net pretty soon. Wow.

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