Lightning strikes one Chicago building each year more than any other in the country

Tall skyscrapers are not just good at defining a skyline and providing status for a city; they attract lightning, some more than others.

Photo by Cameron Casey on

By a wide margin, three skyscrapers in the East stood out for repeated lightning strikes between the years 2015 and 2020. At 1,776 feet tall, the tallest building in the U.S., One World Trade Center in New York City, was struck 189 times between 2015 and 2020, but it wasn’t the most frequently hit building in the nation…

Yet the Big Apple isn’t the U.S. city with the most frequently struck building. That distinction goes to the Willis Tower in Chicago, which ranks third in the U.S. for height, towering at 1,451 feet above the Windy City. That skyscraper was hit with 250 lightning strikes between 2015 and 2020, making it Thor’s favorite target, so to speak.

Why Willis and not World Trade? Lightning strikes vary based on building height, material, and suppression systems. Chris Vagasky, a meteorologist for Vaisala, told AccuWeather that location may be to blame as well.

“Chicago gets more lightning in an average year than New York City,” Vagasky said. “So when you stick a tall building in a place with a higher lightning density, it’s more likely to be struck than a tall building in a place with a lower lightning density. Willis Tower is only slightly shorter than One World Trade, by about 35 feet.”

This is a timely write-up given the number of storms the Chicago area has experienced in the last week or so. With summer heat and humidity in a humid continental climate, big dark clouds and rain have swept over the Chicago region.

The pictures that capture lightning striking the Willis Tower highlight the height of the building above the rest of the (impressive) Chicago skyline. Additionally, they also show the resilience of the structures – explained elsewhere in the article as large Faraday cages – in the midst of a natural phenomena that can be quite destructive.

Does urbanization in America explain the declining deaths by lightning strike?

Here is an interesting research question: is urbanization responsible for the sharp decline in Americans who die by lightning strike each year?

In the lightning-death literature, one explanation has gained prominence: urbanization. Lightning death rates have declined in step with the rural population, and rural lightning deaths make up a far smaller percent of all lightning deaths. Urban areas afford more protection from lightning. Ergo, urbanization has helped make people safer from lightning. Here’s a graph showing this, neat and clean:

And a competing perspective:

I spoke with Ronald Holle, a meteorologist who studies lightning deaths, and he agreed that modernization played a significant role. “Absolutely,” he said. Better infrastructure in rural areas—not just improvements to homes and buildings, but improvements to farming equipment too has—made rural regions safer today than they were in the past. Urbanization seems to explain some of the decline, but not all of it.

“Rural activities back then were primarily agriculture, and what we call labor-intensive manual agriculture. Back then, my family—my grandfather and his father before that in Indiana—had a team of horses, and it took them all day to do a 20-acre field.” Today, a similar farmer would be inside a fully-enclosed metal-topped vehicle, which offers excellent lightning protection. Agriculture has declined as a percent of total lightning-death-related activities, as the graph below shows, but unfortunately it does not show the per capita lightning-death rate of people engaged in agriculture.

Sounds like more data is needed! I wonder how long it would take to collect the relevant information versus the payoff of the findings…

More broadly, this hints at how human interactions with nature has changed, even in relatively recent times: we are more insulated from the effects of weather and nature. During the recent cold snap in the area, I was reminded of an idea I had a few years ago to explain why so many adults seem to talk about the weather. Could it be related to the fact that the weather is perhaps the most notable thing on a daily basis that is outside of our control? As 21st century humans, we control a lot that is in front of us (or at least we think we do) but can do little about what the conditions will be like outside. We have more choices than ever about how to respond but it prompts responses from everyone, from the poor to the wealthy, the aged to the young.