Gimmick or sound science? Businesses are buying into devices that claim to stop lightning.
Among the customers? The Cincinnati Reds and the National Weather Service.
Baseball games can be a magnet for lightning, as they're played outside under tall metal towers during storm-prone months, but the Cincinnati Reds believe they may have found a way to ward off dangerous bolts.
A lightning-suppression system - purporting to balance the electric field between the clouds and ground - was installed at Great American Ball Park in early May. Since then, a team official said, the stadium has escaped being struck despite a summer's worth of thunderstorms.
The Reds are piloting the system for Major League Baseball. If the CMCE-120 Lightning Suppressors - flattened aluminum globes about the width of the bases on the diamond - mounted atop the ballpark's light poles keep working as advertised, they may be coming soon to a stadium near you.
"Our number one responsibility is the safety of people in this ballpark," said Reds vice president of ballpark operations Tim O'Connell, "and if we can have another tool to make this a safer place to be, I'm all for it."
Still, the Reds have left in place the lightning rods studding GABP as well as a lightning-detection system. O'Connell said the stadium, in an average season, has about a dozen games during which threatening lightning prompts the team to order fans out of exposed seats.
Cloud-to-ground lightning strikes occur when a connection is made between channels of negatively-charged ions, called leaders, emerging from storm clouds and positively-charged streamers reaching up from the ground.
According to Indiana-based EMP Solutions, which sold the devices to the team, a suppressor - which in technical terms is a non-polarized capacitor - works by balancing the electric field within a 120-foot radius and neutralizing the streamers.
Said EMP Solutions CEO Jay Kothari, "It almost camouflages the stadium from lightning."
The technology comes from a concept the inventor Nikola Tesla patented in 1918, Kothari added.
But some lightning experts say the devices won't work because the immutable laws of physics mean they can't work and reliance on them could jeopardize public safety.
"Lightning events are complex weather phenomena that often extend over many miles in many directions. The suggestion that a small object on a pole could possibly possess powers to attract or repel lightning over an appreciable distance is simply not rooted in established physical facts," said Jennifer Morgan, education coordinator with the Lightning Safety Alliance. "Promising protection for people in open areas during storm conditions is irresponsible, especially in the case of a sports stadium where tens of thousands of people are potentially exposed to lightning strike risk.
"Relying on unproven gimmicks to protect people in a stadium is an invitation for a lightning tragedy."
Also skeptical is one of MLB's top stars.
"I don't think that's possible," said Los Angeles Angels centerfielder Mike Trout, a self-professed weather geek, when told of Cincinnati's lightning suppressors.
Possible or not, the Reds say the system at GABP is working.
O'Connell said he learned of the suppressors two years ago through a professional connection, then performed his due diligence by asking the team's meteorological advisors - and an MLB team can have many - whether such a thing was possible.
As O'Connell remembered, "Their response, frankly, was, we'd love to see it work."
O'Connell also spoke with clients of EMP Solutions, ranging from sailboat owners to parks districts, and did not receive any negative reviews.
When The Washington Post did its own investigating, reaching out to companies and government agencies listed as customers in EMP Solutions documents or news articles it, too, found customers who raved about the suppressors - including one client which really knows about thunderstorms.
The National Weather Service's office in Amarillo, Texas had lost $157,000 worth of electronics to damage caused by lightning bolts in the year before buying a suppressor. After its installation on a tower by the office, no strikes.
"We approve of it," said David Wilburn, electronic systems analyst at the Amarillo office.
Like the Reds and MLB, Amarillo is piloting the system for the other forecast offices Weather Service's Southern Region.
Other entities to speak positively about EMS Solutions' products were:
The city of Deerfield Beach, Florida, which installed a suppressor to protect the popular "fish cam" underneath its pier. Said City Manager Dave Santucci: "Considering what we've probably spent on fixing the camera and the electrical boxes, we've made our money already because we spent less than $30,000 on the system."
Sarasota County, Florida, which wanted protection for its Emergency Operations Center. "Sarasota County is happy to report that our units have been installed for two years and have not had any direct lightning strikes," said Bill Rhodes, technology systems manager for the county's public safety communications. "Prior to installation our tower was struck twice in a one-year period."
Hancock County, Indiana, which suffered two strikes to its 911 call center within a five-minute span in August 2016. "We have made it through 2017, 2018, and half of 2019 with no strikes, and we have had several strong storms pass through our area during that time," said John Jokantas, director of Hancock County 911.
National Oilwell Varco, which said it hasn't had any strikes in three years since installation at its R&D facility in Navasota, Texas.
However, the endorsements certainly were not unanimous. Capital Weather Gang was given no comment by:
·Northeast Florida Regional Airport, in St. Augustine.
The United States Tennis Association, which has suppressors installed at its campus in Orlando, Florida.
First Energy, for whom EMP Solutions says it is protecting 22 communications towers for the utility in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
One critic of EMP Solutions' technology says the absence of such suppressors at space-launch complexes in lightning-prone Florida provides evidence these devices do not work.
"Not just NASA, but any commercial launch provider, whether it is Space X or Blue Origin or Boeing or ULA or you name it . . . none of these gadgets are used at their launchpads - not a single one," said Carlos Mata, currently chief technologist for Scientific Lightning Solutions, and a former technical lead of Kennedy Space Center's Advanced Electronics and Technology Development Laboratory.
Also, Mata added, there countless capacitors in use across the world and no one believes those are preventing lightning strikes.
Kothari, in response, believes the critics are wrong - but he gets where they're coming from.
"It's a disruptive technology," Kothari said. "If everybody understood what this did and what it could do for them and the benefits of this over regular lightning protection, it would put the lightning rod people out of business."