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    One Shocking Thunderstorm Makes History, Saves Lives

    June 15, 2012; 7:07 AM ET
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    This June marks 260 years since what is perhaps the most important thunderstorm in history: the storm when Benjamin Franklin discovered lightning was a form of electricity.

    Although it may be Franklin's most acclaimed discovery, it is his invention of the lightning rod that protects us from the effects of such a deadly natural force. These instruments have come a long way from attaching a metal key to a kite.

    Summer is the season for lightning storms, and since more people are likely to be outside in June, July and August, they run a higher risk of being injured by lightning. Lightning strikes have killed 412 Americans since 2000, according to Vaisala, a lightning detection company.

    With an instrument also known as Franklin's rod, these metal objects are mounted on top of buildings to conduct lightning's electrical current directly to the ground. While lightning rods are most popular on tall buildings and in rural areas in the mountains, AccuWeather's Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said that with the climate getting warmer, areas that don't usually have many thunderstorms could see an increase.

    "With more heat, we would expect to see more thunderstorms. With more thunderstorms, there's more lightning," Anderson said. "The other thing to think about with climate change is that in areas that don't see as many thunderstorms, their climate may become more like the South's many years down the road."

    In addition, more lightning and drier conditions could mean more fires, he said. The National Fire Protection Association reported that from 2004 to 2008, U.S. fire departments responded to an annual average of 24,600 fires started by lightning.

    Some of the biggest fires in history have been started by lightning. New Mexico's largest fire in history, the Whitewater-Baldy fire, originated from lightning, and the West Virginia coal mine explosion in January 2006 was the deadliest U.S. fire started by lightning, claiming 12 lives.

    Many people are kept from installing a lightning protection system because of the cost, Anderson said. If you live out in a rural area or in a region prone to high risks of lightning strikes, your safety is worth the expense.

    Since Franklin's invention, lightning protection systems have not only been installed in businesses and homes nationwide, but they have also come with their own set of NFPA standards for installation companies to refer to.

    The average number of people struck by lightning each year is slightly decreasing. Beth Weddle, marketing manager at Bonded Lightning Protection Systems, said that there has been a spike in residential lightning protection system installations in high-risk areas like Florida.

    Each LPS is 99 percent effective for structural protection, she said.

    And as long as the system is wired correctly, there are no risks involved, said Mike Smith, AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions' senior vice president and chief innovation executive.

    "Installation is key. There are cases where incorrectly installed lightning rods have caused fires," Smith said. "It must be properly grounded and properly insulated."

    Grounding and Lightning Specialist Ernie Farren works with Dan McMenamin and Associates, Inc., a consultancy that tests the resistance of lightning protection equipment in Mashpee, Mass. He said that lightning rods are not only important for overall safety; homes and businesses should protect their electronic equipment from potential power surges.

    "What you're doing is supplying a source for lightning, and if you don't supply a source, the lightning is going to go where it wants to," said Farren, who has been in the industry for 53 years.

    Technology is another contributor to lightning safety awareness. Lightning prediction systems and mobile and internet apps can now warn more people of upcoming storms.

    AccuWeather's mobile app sends push notifications of severe weather alerts to users' phones. This type of early notification system allows people to safely avoid lightning and its effects.

    Weather instrument developers like Vaisala have invented global lightning datasets that improve lightning location accuracy and help people make more informed decisions about traveling.

    There are even handheld devices, known as "personal lightning detectors," that alarm consumers when lightning strikes within 20 miles.

    "It's an additional accessory to lightning protection," Weddle said.

    Combining lightning protection systems with notification technology, Weddle said, is a necessary step to stay safe from lightning's dangerous effects. She added that her industry is preparing for Lightning Safety Awareness week, which began June 24.

    "Education for the general public on the importance of lightning protection is a battle that we continue to fight," she said.

    Each year lightning causes millions of dollars in losses due to structural damage, fire and

    electrical power outages. The earliest lightning protection dates back thousands of years.

    It was Benjamin Franklin, that invented the lightning rod in 1749. He reasoned that if a

    large iron pole with a sharpened tip were placed higher than objects nearby the energy would

    strike it and be diverted safely to the ground.

    He was right. When electrical charges build up in the atmosphere, they eventually need a path

    to break down and release, and many times this will cause lightning to strike tall objects that

    can be substantially damaged. The purpose of a lightning rod is to intercept this electrical charge

    and channel it safely, and to prevent lightning from striking things that can catch fire or create

    unsafe conditions. The idea is to place the metal rod high enough so that electrical charges from the

    atmosphere will have a better chance of channeling through it instead of houses, trees, or people.

    If the electrical charge is allowed to build up substantially, it will eventually discharge through

    whatever object is nearest to the outlet.

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