WATCH: Wits University International Lightning Conference ends with a bang, just in time for ‘lightning season’

Lightning strikes over Centurion cricket ground in Pretoria. File picture: Mike Hutchings MH/AA/Reuters

Lightning strikes over Centurion cricket ground in Pretoria. File picture: Mike Hutchings MH/AA/Reuters

Published Oct 13, 2022


For the first time in its 71 year history, the International Conference on Lightning Protection (ICLP), one of the most prestigious international lightning protection conferences, was hosted by an African city.

Celebrating its centenary this year, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) played host to the 36th International Conference on Lightning Protection (ICLP) from October 2 to 7, with the conference itself being hosted in Cape Town.

The conference was open to researchers, academics, industry and alike who share an interest in lightning research, protection, and safety.

With some of the most spectacular thunderstorms in the world, South Africa’s long history of lightning research, such as the work being done at the Johannesburg Lightning Research Laboratory (JLRL) at Wits University, and our experienced lightning protection industry, ICLP 2022 and South Africa were a natural fit.

Dr Hugh Hunt, head of the JLRL at Wits and technical chair of ICLP 2022 said that "lightning is one of the biggest weather-related killers in the world, claiming the lives of more than 24 000 people worldwide each year.”

In South Africa alone, more than 250 people are killed by lightning annually and thousands more are injured, while insurance claims are estimated to be more than R500 million each year.

“Southern Africa, as a climate change hotspot, is likely to see increased lightning activity, making the study of lightning in the Global South paramount to mitigate the dangers to human safety and economic sustainability,” Hunt said.

ICLP 2022 offered delegates a platform for the exchange of scientific and technical information related to lightning phenomena and protection against these phenomena.

“The conference will have technical presentations from more than 150 lightning protection experts around the world, looking at everything from how to better protect renewable energy systems how to predict approaching storms using artificial intelligence" said Hunt.

The conference was first held in Germany in 1951 and has become the largest biennial conference that forms a global platform where the academic and industry giants of lightning protection come together and exchange scientific and technological knowledge through presentations, discussions, workshops and exhibitions.

Professor Ian Jandrell registered international professional engineer renowned for his scientific work over 30 years that focuses on lightning injury and the risks associated with lightning, and the current Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Systems and Operations at Wits University, has lobbied for many years to bring ICLP to South Africa.

As the 2022 conference chair, Jandrell leads a team of leading lightning researchers from Wits in organising and hosting this year’s ICLP.

"Our interest at Wits is the impact of lightning on humanity and, not only on human lives but industry, society and how we manage the risk associated with lightning. With Wits' critical contribution to our changing environment, I cannot think of a more appropriate place to hold the 36th International Conference on Lightning Protection for the first time on the African continent.

Significantly, this opportunity to host the ICLP is in our Centenary Year – and forms part of the university’s celebrations,” says Jandrell.

One of the significant lightning research entities in Africa is the Johannesburg Lightning Research Laboratory (JLRL), based in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits.

“In Johannesburg, we are exposed to an average of 15 to 20 flashes per square kilometre per year – a high flash density for a country’s main economic centre,” says Hunt.

The JLRL aims to harness this flash density and continue South Africa’s rich history of lightning research, making measurements of ground-truth lightning events to better understand the physics and behaviour of the lightning phenomenon, with an aim to improve lightning protection systems and human safety.

The JLRL’s latest research includes finding the ‘smoking gun’ in forensic lightning pathology that can help forensic teams understand whether people or animals were the victims of fatal lightning strikes, based solely upon an analysis of their skeletons.

The lab has also turned Johannesburg into a ‘live lightning laboratory’ in collaboration with the private sector to install a lightning current measurement device on the Sentech Tower in Brixton, Johannesburg.

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