By Tim Hipps
Nothing can spoil a sporting event quicker than a bolt of lightning.
Although the chance of getting struck by lightning in any given year is about 1 in 500,000, the National Weather Service estimates that more than 400 people get struck by lightning each year in the United States. On average, 49 of them die.
Seventeen percent of lightning deaths between 2006 and 2013 occurred during outdoor sports or recreational activities, such as soccer, golf, running, baseball, and football, in that order, according to the NWS. Most of the fatalities occurred among 10- to 29-year-olds. Many of the victims were headed to safety, some just a few steps from shelter, when lightning struck.
Six spectators at the 2019 PGA Championship in Atlanta last August were somewhat fortunate to be treated for non-life-threatening injuries and released from a nearby hospital after lightning struck a 60-foot pine tree they were “sheltered” beneath. Tournament play had been suspended for 28 minutes before lightning struck twice near the 15th green and 16th tee. The golfers and caddies had already cleared the course. Tournament officials warned and urged spectators to do the same.
Lightning should be the No. 1 exemption from everyone’s potential unheeded warnings list, right up there with thunderstorm mud-puddle dancing, and baseball and softball aluminum bat swinging amidst the cool glow and eerily dry quietness of heat lightning. Please don’t try these at home.
Lightning also struck a tree just off the 18th green shortly after 2019 U.S. Women’s Open second-round play was suspended at the Country Club of Charleston, South Carolina, but no injuries were reported as warnings apparently were heeded.
Professional golf tournaments were not as fortunate in the summer of 1991 when one man died and five others were injured by lightning on the opening day of the U.S. Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. Pioneer Press photographer Richard Marshall was there that day, and 11 years later he shared this recollection:
“I sat up and looked straight ahead where six men stood under a weeping willow about 30 yards away, side by side. They were motionless, like department store mannequins. Then they just crumpled, as if they no longer had skeletons inside to support them. I groped around until I found one of my cameras with a 400-millimeter telephoto lens attached.
“As I photographed them on the ground, I began to understand that lightning was somehow the cause of all this. I kept wondering where my poncho went. As I hurried over to where people gathered around the stricken men, I was looking for that poncho (can’t tell you why). The men on the ground were clearly in various stages of shock, and those trying to help them were visibly stunned. For the number of people who materialized on the scene, it was remarkably quiet.
“Medical personnel, both assigned to the event and emerging from the ranks of the spectators, quickly worked to revive the six victims. A number of people took exception to what I was doing, yelling at me as I photographed the men being helped, which was very jarring in the midst of this surreal scene. All I remembered thinking was that people needed to see what was happening here. I did not learn until later, hours after I had returned to my office in St. Paul, that one of the victims, 27-year-old William John Faddell of Spring Park, had been killed by the strike.”
The tree held more water in its canopy than other taller trees nearby, and thus became the target of the lightning bolt.
“The trunk of the willow tree had a gash ripped in it from the bolt,” Marshall explained. “The tree itself was not very tall; set in a depression between the 11th tee and the 16th fairway, there were several taller trees nearby, not to mention a number of taller metal grandstands. We all know we’re not supposed to hide under a tree during a storm, but with few options available, the victims figured a shorter tree made the most sense. The rain-soaked canopy of the tree, however, proved to be what attracted the deadly bolt.”
Two months later, a man was struck and killed by lightning while walking to his car during a storm delay at the 73rd PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana.
On the flip side, golfer Retief Goosen was struck by lightning as a teenager in South Africa. He not only survived the strike but went on to win two U.S. Open titles and recently was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The key to avoiding lightning strikes, obviously, is to avoid being around thunderstorms altogether. Chances are wherever you live the weather is subject to change at a moment’s notice, especially during spring and summer months. It does not have to be raining for lightning to strike. All thunderstorms produce lightning. If you can hear thunder, the storm is close enough for lightning to strike.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics’ message of getting outside, enjoying nature and promoting physical activity remains unwavering, its policy statement for baseball and softball advises all coaches and officials to be aware of extreme weather conditions — including lightning — and to postpone or cancel games if conditions worsen and players are at risk. That guidance applies to all organized sports and recreational outdoor activities.
NCAA policy requires that play be suspended if there is lightning within eight miles of the venue. It requires a 30-minute delay, which may increase, as the count will restart if a lightning strike occurs within the eight-mile radius.
When lightning is detected within eight miles of the venue, the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security suggests this protocol:
The designated weather watcher notifies management and event officials of nearby lightning threat and a delay is implemented.
Event officials suspend activity.
Venue management notifies all staff that the event has been suspended because of lighting, and designated staff are positioned to direct the crowd to proper shelters.
Evacuation of the venue begins, and all patrons, officials, and athletes/performers are directed to the nearest predesignated lighting-safe shelter.
For the fastest severe weather warnings, sports organizations need intelligent weather data powered by lightning detection systems.
Since 1976, Thor Guard has been warning folks of potential lightning and other severe weather conditions. Utilizing proprietary atmospheric electrostatic analysis technology, Thor Guard provides live streaming local radar to help protect people and equipment from lightning while bolstering outdoor event management.
Thor Guard’s roll call includes the United States Golf Association, American Junior Golf Association, United States Tennis Association, Tournament Players Clubs, Marriott Golf, Department of Homeland Security, NASA, American Airlines, Jet Blue, Pearson International Airport (Toronto), AT&T, UPS, Google, and Rolls Royce, among others.
In 1992, Earth Networks set out to keep communities safe throughout the state of Maryland. Now, with more than 1,700 sensors covering more than 100 countries around the world, Earth Networks claims the most extensive and technologically-advanced global lightning-detection network of its kind. Its ability to monitor in-cloud lightning sets it apart by enabling the most complete lightning-alert system.
Earth Networks detected 157,506,621 total lightning strikes last year in the United States, including 32,638,567 dangerous cloud-to-ground strikes. Detecting in-cloud lightning enables Earth Networks to generate faster lightning alerts and warn of other forms of severe weather, such as tornadoes, downbursts and hail.
Through innovative detection of in-cloud lightning, Earth Networks can provide organizations around the world with the most technologically-advanced alerts. Whether a school protecting athletes or a power company planning for outages, Dangerous Thunderstorm Alerts (DTAs) help minimize severe weather risks by taking the pressure out of decision-making, protecting critical assets, and improving business continuity.
First to realize the importance of in-cloud lightning detection, Earth Networks’ high detection efficiency of in-cloud strikes enabled improved lead times for severe weather warnings and lightning alerts.
Sporting events become dangerous when the intensity of the game is viewed as more important than the safety of the players, coaches, and spectators. Once horns effectively get people to safety before severe weather rolls in, countdown clocks play a crucial role in ensuring the game won’t resume until the storm passes. These systems help eliminate weather-related second-guessing with an unmistakable horn and strobe lightning alert system that prompts employees and/or clients to safety automatically and lets them know when they can resume activities with an “all-clear” signal.
The Sferic Siren, a high-decibel horn (110 dBA) coupled with a 170,000 peak candela strobe light, is the shining star of Earth Networks’ automated outdoor total lightning detection system that tends to scurry people from harm’s way. Its integrated cloud-to-ground and in-cloud lightning detection network maximizes reliability while minimizing false-alarm rates.
The system comes complete with “all-clear” and “resume operations” countdown displays for employees, patrons, and customers that automatically reset when another lightning strike is recorded.
Regardless of what type of lightning detection equipment is available, always follow the 30/30 rule when dealing with lightning. Familiarize yourself with the flash-to-bang count to determine when to seek shelter. Begin counting when you see a flash of lightning. Stop counting when you hear thunder. You should be inside a safe shelter before you reach a count of 30. Dividing this number by five will determine the distance in miles to the lightning flash. If the activity has been delayed, wait at least 30 minutes following the last sound of thunder or lightning flash before you resume outdoor activity.
After all, it could be a matter of life or death.