Jesse Ferrell

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Is the World Trade Center Lightning Photo Real?

June 10, 2013; 1:13 PM ET

NOTE: This blog is an update to a story that I wrote in 2010: "Weather Photo Hoaxes & How To Detect Them."

UPDATE 6/11/2013: Another photo has surfaced from the same night, that may be the same lightning strike, from another location nearby.

UPDATE 6/9/2013: Nick has sent me the original photo with the EXIF data that confirms it was taken with a Canon EOS 60D camera, 32-second exposure, taken at 7:46 PM (but he's from Alaska, which is four hours behind, making it 11:46 PM). I am now 95% sure this photo is legit, and unless I took it myself, that's about as confident as I get.

ORIGINAL BLOG 6/8/2013: As soon as I saw this photo making the rounds on Social Media last Tuesday, my hoax alarm went off, because I've blogged about hoax weather photos so many times. Was it a real photo, taken in New York City on Sunday night (June 2nd)? I can now say that I'm 85% sure the answer is: Yes. Here's how I came to that conclusion, in just a few steps (that can be used to authenticate non-weather photos as well).

1. Has it been uploaded to the Internet before? This rules out most legitimate photos quickly. It didn't used to be easy, but now with Google Image Search (click on the "Camera" icon) you can paste in the URL of an image, or even upload one that isn't online yet. If you see a lot of results going back in time, it probably didn't happen today. On Tuesday, this photo checked out -- the Internet hadn't seen it before Monday.

2. Does it look like a legitimate photo? This is where you may need a subject expert and the answers can be general based on experience. When I look at this lightning photo, it looks like others I've seen (and taken myself). The overexposure around the strikes looks about right for a strike at that distance. The reflections on the buildings look reasonable. It seems legit.

3. Is it showing what it claims to be, at that location and time? The photo could be real, but misinterpreted. Is there a trick of light or perspective (is the lightning really hitting the tower, or behind it?) The lightning clearly ends at the tower, so that's what it was hitting.

In addition, I was able to confirm via Vaisala (the eldest of several companies that measure where lightning hits the Earth) that a strike did in fact hit very close to the World Trade Center, which was in their "confidence ellipse" (shown in purple, because their accuracy is hundreds of meters, something I've confirmed before). I also believe the strike to the East is likely the one that is to the left in Nick's photo, because it essentially struck at the same second (03:45:07 Z time Jun. 3rd which corresponds to 11:45:07 ET). His Reddit post was at 03:57 Z, 12 minutes after he took the photo, which makes sense.

4. Has the photographer been identified? Media sites have identified the photographer as Nick Carwile, 18, from Alaska. His Facebook Page lists professional audio and video as being interests, and he's posted other professional-looking photos. (Because the original upload was on Reddit, which has a different audience than Flickr, I didn't find him there.) While none of these things confirm the photo's authenticity, they are more good signs. "Anonymous" photos are almost never real.

5. Can the original upload be located? Photos like these get passed around like wildfire. Without the original, it's very hard to confirm the truth. In this case, based on research I've done, there's no compression or "lossy" artifacts on the original upload (original Reddit post here). If there were, I'd go back to Google Image Search and search for only "Large" images (meaning bigger dimensions). Usually the largest, or first posted image, is the original. This one is clean.

6. Does it look too good to be true? Is the photo framed perfectly, or are there imperfections? (rain drops on the lens, window blocking part of the frame, slightly tilted). This looks like what it claims to be - a lucky (long-exposure) lightning strike taken from a hotel window in New York City.

7. Is EXIF data present? Can the author be contacted for the original file showing EXIF data? Although it can be faked, generally EXIF data (metadata about the camera and the settings used when taking it, that can be read in advanced photo programs like Photoshop) lends a lot of credibility. If the photographer can't provide the original photo with EXIF data intact, be suspicious. If they have a Flickr site, the original may be there (in this case, he didn't, which didn't surprise me because it's a different audience than Reddit). Neither the original Reddit post nor a larger version uploaded to the Facebook Page for his company (Clearwater Productions) contained EXIF data. I've attempted to contact Nick through an email provided by a Google Search, and Facebook, but he has not written back.

I have no way to know if he received the messages, of course, so I can't really close the case on this one. Huffington Post did talk to him via email, which is a good sign. If he provides me with the original photo with EXIF data intact, I'll raise my authenticity estimate to 95%.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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About This Blog

Jesse Ferrell
Jesse Ferrell's WeatherMatrix blog covers extreme weather worldwide with a concentration on weather photos and Social Media.