Lightning can strike more than once in the same spot. Ali Hussein has built a career on this little known truth. He’s been measuring lightning strikes on Toronto’s CN Tower for 20 years.
Since it hits the tower about 100 times a year, there’s lots to study.
Originally from Egypt, Hussein studied electrical engineering there. He got a scholarship to study abroad at the University of Toronto and came to Canada to do his PhD in electromagnetics.
When he finished in 1979, he worked in Saudi Arabia doing research for two years, then decided to immigrate back to Canada, since thing were so troubled politically in the Middle East. (He had to pay back his scholarship to the Egyptian government.)
By then, Cold War was in full swing and he found work with Bell Northern, studying electromagnetic pulses. There was a concern, back then, that a pulse could be used to disrupt communications as part of an attack.
But he missed academia. “My best field is teaching and research,” says Hussein. He got a position at Ryerson and the University of Toronto, and found himself working with Wasl Janischewskyj, who had been measuring lightning strikes on the CN Tower since 1988.
He’s now retired and Hussein is in charge of getting new equipment, organizing grad students to organize the data collected from the tower, writing academic papers and attending conferences — along with his teaching duties at Ryerson.
When Hussein first started measuring lightning, he and grad students would visit the CN Tower late at night, when there was little telecommunications activity so things could be shut down, and would climb up inside the tower above its highest observation deck. They’d scale ladders up into the needle-like tip of the tower to check on their equipment.
Now, the rules have changed and the tower staff do all the maintenance. Right now, Hussein has an electromagnetic measurement system, a GPS (which helps them not measure position, but the time of the lightning), a video camera and a digital camera — which takes 1,000 pictures per second — up in the tower.
Hussein’s published data has helped further the understanding of lightning. This information is useful not just for academics, but for engineers who need to know how lightning-safe they need to build things.
And Hussein also says it’s part of his job to help educate the public about lightning safety.
“Lightning is fascinating, but it’s also dangerous.”