News hit the Net yesterday afternoon that lightning had struck The Vatican twice, just hours after Pope after Pope Benedict XVI's sudden resignation. As a lightning photographer and weather photo hoax buster, I investigated to see if the photo was real.
When the picture first started circulating on Facebook, Meteonetwork Puglia e Basilicata ONLUS (a division of Associazione MeteoNetwork Onlus) and commenting members of the Facebook page thought that the photo might be faked (loose internet translation here), because the strike didn't seem to reflect on the dome, because it didn't seem to make close contact with it, and because there was no reflection on the wet street below (see annotated image). Since many photos you see on Social Media are faked, or at least re-purposed, I was immediately suspicious as well.
However, when it was announced later in the day that the photographer was an Italian professional photographer Filippo Monteforte, the photo was transmitted by AFP, and BBC ran a video of the lightning strike, this quelled most of the controversy. If you look closely in the video (embedded above), you can see something I've noticed dozens of times when filming lightning -- the initial stroke of lightning is often too bright and overexposes the photo. But lightning strikes through its channel rapidly, dozens of times, and the last few strokes (what we see as "fading") provide the opportunity to get a clear shot of the bolt, with minimal reflection on nearby surfaces. For this reason, I believe the photo is plausible, and since it was taken by a professional, with potential video to back it up, I'd say that the photo is legitimate.
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Archived lightning strike data is not easy to come by in foreign countries, but certainly multiple Facebook users viewing the photo confirmed that a thunderstorm was present in Rome Monday afternoon, on the edge of a powerful storm system that brought snow to much of the country. A request to the Worldwide Lightning Network didn't turn up any lightning data, but they don't measure 100% of lightning. CORRECTION 5 PM: An amended request did confirm lightning in the area. Most importantly, official weather observations from CIAMPINO Ciampino, Rome, do indicate that there was a thunderstorm for approximately 3 hours in Rome yesterday:
It also may just be coincidence that lightning struck. The Empire State Building in New York City is hit by lightning 100 times per year. If the Basilica is properly grounded and an attractive source for lightning strikes, it's possible that it gets hit every time a thunderstorm moves through Rome. The only thing working against that is that it doesn't appear from a Google Image Search that a similar image has ever been captured before.
Thumbnail image of Basilica via Flickr.
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