Lightning: The Underrated Killer

By: Mike Johnson

Early season college football can be summed in a few simple observations.  1) Tailgating parties will litter stadium parking lots, 2) pre-season rankings are worthless, and 3) there will be lightning delays.  While I love a good discussion on tailgating and football polls, this really isn’t the forum.  However, based on recent human behavior, a discussion on lightning is certainly worth the time and effort.

Thunderstorms are well-known phenomena during the late summer early fall across much of the country.  When these thunderstorms approach populated areas, the resultant hail, strong winds, or flooding rainfall may pose a threat to public safety.  The potential for the above factors is what typically facilitates the decision to issue Severe Thunderstorm or Flash Flood Warnings.  Lightning can be seemingly be overlooked because the National Weather Service (NWS) does not factor the presence of lightning into the criteria for a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. In this sense, lightning gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

That doesn’t mean that meteorologists are keenly aware of the dangers associated with lightning.  In fact, it’s quite the contrary. There are other means of getting the word on lightning dangers out to the public, but these methods simply don’t have the same visibility of a warning.  For instance, the NWS may issue a Special Weather Statement that highlights the potential for dangerous lightning.  The threat can also be relayed through social media avenues such as Twitter and Facebook and it may scroll along across the television in some markets. In addition, the NWS has placed an emphasis on providing Impact-Based Decision Support Services (IDSS). This has resulted in improved communication of weather hazards and their anticipated impacts from the meteorologists to decision makers in the Emergency Management field.

Did you know, that over the past 30 years, an average of 48 people are killed by lightning each year?  The number of lightning fatalities has been reduced over the past 10-20 years, with the most recent 10 year average coming in at 27 fatalities.  Improved weather forecasts and warnings, education, and hazard mitigation plans have all played a part in this reduction.  Even so, we’re still not where we want (or need) to be, especially when we examine instances of lightning in proximity to large venues or crowded areas.  Let’s talk a look a recent example.


Fatalities attributed to weather via NOAA

There were at least 3 games delayed by lightning in week 3 of the 2016 college football schedule, including one of the week’s marquee matchups between The University of Oklahoma and Ohio State.  These thunderstorms were well forecast as they approached the stadium prior to kickoff.  Officials promptly delayed the start of the game and the public address announcer asked fans to take cover.  That’s where things didn’t really go according to safety plan.  While a large majority of the fans took shelter beneath the concourse, much of the student section remained in their seats as a severe thunderstorm passed just north of the University of Oklahoma campus. My Twitter feed became littered with comments on the occurrence, some hailing the students as being devoted fans by riding out the storm, while others admonished their foolish inaction. 

There are several potential reasons the student section would ignore direct safety instructions.  For one, these seats are on a “first come, first serve basis”, so leaving would be giving up a seat that was claimed by arriving early.   Second, there may not have been a good place to take cover.  A few pictures have surfaced that gave the impression that it was already relatively crowded beneath the concourse already due to arriving crowd.  Finally, sometimes people just don’t heed the message because the perceived threat is less than reality.  I hesitate to speculate further on these reasons or cast blame for the situation, but it’s obvious there remains a disconnect between the meteorological community and the public at large.  The bottom line is:  information regarding the danger was provided and action was not taken.


Photo via Spenser Davis/The Oklahoma Daily

Speaking as a meteorologist that is charged with the protection of life and property, my primary job is to communicate weather hazards in a manner that minimizes the threat to the public.  I am keenly aware that there will be injuries and fatalities due to weather on my watch, despite accurate and timely warnings, but I will always strive to limit the number of causalities to zero.  What is really frustrating, however, is when an injury occurs that could have easily been prevented.  By following simple safety guidelines, the threat from lightning can be significantly reduced.

Admittedly, being struck by lightning is a low probability event, even during a thunderstorm.  Most people tend to understand this, at least anecdotally, and perceive their threat as minimal.  They’ve been in many thunderstorms throughout their lifetimes, but have yet to be struck by lightning.  This optimism bias is evident in many aspects of life, but research has shown it to be a factor in why some people don’t take shelter during severe weather.  We hear it often during severe weather events when a storm victim makes the statement that they knew the storm was coming, but they didn’t think it would be that bad.  One thing to keep in mind is that the threat for the most dangerous severe weather often affects only a very small area, despite warnings that may be the size of a county (or larger).  In my opinion, we don’t make this fact well known in our outreach and education information.

The ability to accurately forecast lightning remains an issue.  While hail, wind, and tornadoes are difficult for meteorologists to detect via radar, there are radar signature that often precede or imply their presence.  We simply don’t have the same luxury with lightning and it is impossible to try to forecast where lightning will strike if, and when, it does develop.  A few lightning detection datasets are currently available to NWS forecasters, but they don’t forecast lightning.  We simply can’t detect lightning until after it occurs.  Other smaller networks have been created by various universities for research or around venues for public safety.  Pertaining to college football, when lightning is detected within 8 miles of the stadium, the NCAA requires that play be suspended for at least 30 minutes.  This is a good start, but we have to make sure that we have a solid plan for how to protect those in vulnerable areas.

When it comes to the situation observed prior to the Oklahoma-Ohio State football game, how is that plan enacted?  Do event coordinators wait for individuals to police themselves?  Do they force an evacuation of the stadium?  I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the situation captured in Image 2 is not what we want to see in the future.

Lightning will always pose a hazard to folks that participate in outdoor activities when storms approach, but this threat can be minimized by following a few simple safety tips.  The best action you can take is to seek shelter indoors.  Sometimes shelter is not available.  In these instances, the advice from the NWS is as follows:

  • Avoid open fields, the top of a hill or a ridge top.
  • Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If you are in a forest, stay near a lower stand of trees.
  • If you are in a group, spread out to avoid the current traveling between group members.
  • If you are camping in an open area, set up camp in a valley, ravine or other low area. Remember, a tent offers NO protection from lighting.
  • Stay away from water, wet items, such as ropes, and metal objects, such as fences and poles. Water and metal do not attract lightning but they are excellent conductors of electricity. The current from a lightning flash will easily travel for long distances.

If you forget all other lightning safety tips, just remember this one.  When thunder roars, go indoors.  It just might save your life.

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