By Kevin Ambrose
It was early in NOAA’s lightning safety workshop at the University of Maryland when attendees heard how a single lightning flash could kill over 50 people with one strike. It has happened in both China and India where people tend to crowd together during thunderstorms. There is definitely not safety in numbers when lightning is involved. In the United States, where do crowds and lightning occur together? The answer is outdoor sports venues.
Lightning is not created equally
Not all lightning bolts are the same. The most powerful lightning can have over 300,000,000 volts, 200,000 amps, and can heat the air to over 60,000°F. Lightning can explode large trees and blow bricks and concrete out of sidewalks.
Scott Rudlosky, physical scientist at NOAA, explained during the lightning safety workshop that severe thunderstorms tend to produce bigger and more powerful lightning flashes. He also explained that isolated, severe thunderstorms tend to produce the dangerous side flashes that can send lightning over 10 miles outside of the parent thunderstorm. Those lightning flashes are particularly dangerous for sports venues because they occur outside of the storm’s rain shaft.
What would happen if one of the largest lightning flashes, a super bolt, hit inside of a stadium during an NFL game? The results could be catastrophic if the stadium had not been properly evacuated before the storm.
Who is responsible?
At a sports venue, who is responsible for the safety and evacuation of the people? The sports teams, the league, the venue owners, or the local government? The answer is they should all work together on a coordinated lightning safety plan in the event of thunderstorms. Many already do have plans, but there are inconsistencies in how decisions are made and when to evacuate people.
Charlie Woodrum, program coordination officer at NOAA, explained that during NFL football games the venue operators help make the decision for lightning delays but with Major League Baseball the umpire makes the decision. During playoffs, the decision making for storm delays changes and involves the league’s approval.
Do the decision makers have real-time weather imagery that show the location of the thunderstorm and the location of recent lightning strikes? The answer is usually yes, but not always. It’s easy to see that umpires during baseball games are often more focused on the game than where the lightning is currently striking.
In addition, weather delays at professional sporting events can have a major impact on the businesses related to the game, including broadcasting and advertising. As a result, lightning delays and evacuations at the professional level are often done when the storm is very close. Thus, it’s not too surprising that the little leagues practice better lightning safety than the big leagues.
Tools to help with lightning safety
The Little League Weatherbug App shows real-time data for lightning strikes to help coaches and umpires decide when to delay and evacuate a game. There are also many weather-related Web sites that show radar and lightning data. Fortunately, venue operators, ground crews, and even umpires can monitor weather data on their smart phones, iPads, and computers in control rooms. Well-informed decisions can be made regarding storm delays and evacuations.
Some sports venues such as Michigan Stadium broadcast the weather radar imagery on their video board to inform the crowd about the current weather situation. Other venues, such as Spartan Stadium, broadcast the weather warnings on their scoreboards.
To help with planning for lightning safety at venues, NOAA has produced a set of online resources. NOAA’s lightning safety toolkit can be accessed at here. There are .pdf and .doc versions of the lightning safety toolkit available to the venues and to the public. The .doc version can be edited so the toolkit can be modified to fit the venue’s needs. The National Weather Service has made itself available to review and help with the planning.
Completing lightning safety planning for venues
As stated above, NOAA’s lightning safety toolkit is available for venues to read and fill out and the planning can be later reviewed by the NWS for approval. Upon approval, the venue can be recognized by the National Weather Service for having an approved lightning safety plan. The media is encouraged to get involved to help spread the word. Ultimately, it becomes good publicity for the venue, the local governments, and the National Weather Service as they ensure a plan for better lightning safety at sports venues and help with the process of educating the public to be more aware of lightning safety.