Lightning Safety and Outdoor Sports Activities
It’s a common situation — a thunderstorm is approaching or nearby. Are conditions outside safe, or is it time to head for safe place? Not wanting to appear overly cautious, many people wait far too long before reacting to this potentially deadly weather threat. Anyone who is outside in the summer needs to understand some basic information about lightning. Each year, thunderstorms produce an estimated 20 to 25 million cloud-to-ground lightning flashes in the United States — each one of those flashes is a potential killer. Some of those flashes strike directly under the storm where it is raining, but some of the flashes reach out away from the storm where people perceive the lightning threat to be low or nonexistent, and catch people by surprise.
Based on cases documented by the National Weather Service in recent years, about 30 people are killed by lightning each year and hundreds more are injured, some suffering devastating neurological injuries that persist for the rest of their lives. About two thirds of the deaths are associated with outdoor recreational activities.
Officials responsible for sports outdoor activities need to understand thunderstorms and lightning to make educated decisions on when to seek safety. Without this knowledge, officials may base their decisions on personal experience and or a desire to complete the activity. Unfortunately, decisions based on past experience or a desire to complete the activity can put the lives of those involved at risk.
For organized outdoor activities, the National Weather Service recommends that organizers have a lightning safety plan and follow it without exception. The plan should give clear and specific safety guidelines to eliminate errors in judgment. These guidelines should address the following questions.
- When should activities be stopped?
- Where should people go for safety?
- When should activities be resumed?
- Who should monitor the weather and make the decision to stop activities?
- What should be done if someone is struck by lightning?
Before an activity or event, organizers should listen to the latest forecast to determine the likelihood of thunderstorms. There are many good sources of up-to-date weather information including NOAA Weather Radio. If thunderstorms are forecast, organizers should consider canceling or postponing the activity or event. In some cases, the event can be moved indoors. Once people start to arrive at an event, the guidelines in the lightning safety plan should be followed. Officials should monitor weather conditions, weather radar, and lightning detection technology for developing or approaching storms. Below is some information to consider when making a lightning safety plan. In addition, NOAA has developed lightning safety toolkits for organizations and venues to use in making a plan. Below are some of the considerations in making a lightning safety plan.
When should activities be stopped?
In general, a significant lightning threat extends outward from the base of a thunderstorm cloud about 6 to 10 miles. It’s important to account for the time it will take for everyone to get to safety. Here are some criteria that could be used to stop activities.
- If you see lightning. The ability to see lightning varies depending on the time of day, weather conditions, and obstructions such as trees, mountains, etc. In clear air, and especially at night, lightning can be seen from storms more than 10 miles away provided that obstructions don’t limit the view of the thunderstorm.
- If you hear thunder. Thunder can usually be heard for a distance of about 10 miles provided that there is no background noise. Traffic, wind, and precipitation may limit the ability to hear thunder to less than 10 miles. If you hear thunder, though, it’s a safe bet that the storm is within ten miles.
- If the skies look threatening. Thunderstorms can develop directly overhead and some storms may develop lightning just as they move into an area.
Where should people go for safe shelter?
There is no place outside that is safe when a thunderstorm is in the area. Stop the activity immediately and get to a safe place immediately. Substantial buildings with wiring and plumbing provide the greatest amount of protection. Office buildings, schools, and homes are examples of buildings that would offer good protection. Once inside, stay away from windows and doors and anything that conducts electricity such as corded phones, wiring, plumbing, and anything connected to these. Note that small outdoor buildings including dugouts, rain shelters, sheds, etc., are NOT SAFE. In the absence of a substantial building, a hard-topped metal vehicle with the windows closed provides good protection.
When should activities be resumed?
Because electrical charges can linger in clouds after a thunderstorm has seemingly passed, experts agree that people should wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunder before resuming outdoor activities.
Who should monitor the weather and make decisions?
Lightning safety plans should specify that someone be designated to monitor the weather for lightning. The lightning monitor should not be the coach, umpire, or referee, because these people will be busy and can’t adequately monitor conditions. The lightning monitor must know the plan’s guidelines and be empowered to assure that the guidelines are followed.
What should be done if someone is struck by lightning?
Most victims can survive a lightning strike; however, they need immediate medical attention. Call 911 for medical help. Victims do not carry an electrical charge. In many cases, the victim’s heart and/or breathing may have stopped. CPR or an AED may be needed to revive them. Continue to monitor the victim until medical help arrives. If possible, move the victim to a safer place inside away from the threat of another lightning strike.
Lightning: What You Need to Know
- NO PLACE outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area!!
- If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you.
- When you hear thunder, immediately move to safe shelter: a substantial building with electricity or plumbing or an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle with windows up.
- Stay in safe shelter at least 30 minutes after you hear the last sound of thunder.
Indoor Lightning Safety
- Stay off corded phones, computers and other electrical equipment that put you in direct contact with electricity.
- Avoid plumbing, including sinks, baths and faucets.
- Stay away from windows and doors, and stay off porches.
- Do not lie on concrete floors, and do not lean against concrete walls.
Last Resort Outdoor Risk Reduction Tips
If you are caught outside with no safe shelter anywhere nearby the following actions may reduce your risk:
- Immediately get off elevated areas such as hills, mountain ridges or peaks
- Never lie flat on the ground
- Never shelter under an isolated tree
- Never use a cliff or rocky overhang for shelter
- Immediately get out and away from ponds, lakes and other bodies of water
- Stay away from objects that conduct electricity (barbed wire fences, power lines, windmills, etc.)
Lightning Myths and Facts
Myth: If you’re caught outside during a thunderstorm, you should crouch down to reduce your risk of being struck. Fact: Crouching doesn’t make you any safer outdoors. Run to a substantial building or hard topped vehicle. If you are too far to run to one of these options, you have no good alternative. You are NOT safe anywhere outdoors. See the National Weather Service safety page for tips that may slightly reduce your risk.
Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice. Fact: Lightning often strikes the same place repeatedly, especially if it’s a tall, pointy, isolated object. The Empire State Building is hit nearly 100 times a year.
Myth: If it’s not raining or there aren’t clouds overhead, you’re safe from lightning. Fact: Lightning often strikes more than three miles from the center of the thunderstorm, far outside the rain or thunderstorm cloud. “Bolts from the blue” can strike 10-15 miles from the thunderstorm.
Myth: Rubber tires on a car protect you from lightning by insulating you from the ground. Fact: Most cars are safe from lightning, but it is the metal roof and metal sides that protect you, NOT the rubber tires. Remember, convertibles, motorcycles, bicycles, open-shelled outdoor recreational vehicles and cars with fiberglass shells offer no protection from lightning. When lightning strikes a vehicle, it goes through the metal frame into the ground. Don’t lean on doors during a thunderstorm.
Myth: A lightning victim is electrified. If you touch them, you’ll be electrocuted. Fact: The human body does not store electricity. It is perfectly safe to touch a lightning victim to give them first aid. This is the most chilling of lightning Myths. Imagine if someone died because people were afraid to give CPR!
Myth: If outside in a thunderstorm, you should seek shelter under a tree to stay dry. Fact: Being underneath a tree is the second leading cause of lightning casualties. Better to get wet than fried!
Myth: If you are in a house, you are 100% safe from lightning. Fact: A house is a safe place to be during a thunderstorm as long as you avoid anything that conducts electricity. This means staying off corded phones, electrical appliances, wires, TV cables, computers, plumbing, metal doors and windows. Windows are hazardous for two reasons: wind generated during a thunderstorm can blow objects into the window, breaking it and causing glass to shatter and second, in older homes, in rare instances, lightning can come in cracks in the sides of windows.
Myth: If thunderstorms threaten while you are outside playing a game, it is okay to finish it before seeking shelter. Fact: Many lightning casualties occur because people do not seek shelter soon enough. No game is worth death or life-long injuries. Seek proper shelter immediately if you hear thunder. Adults are responsible for the safety of children.
Myth: Structures with metal, or metal on the body (jewelry, cell phones, Mp3 players, watches, etc.), attract lightning. Fact: Height, pointy shape, and isolation are the dominant factors controlling where a lightning bolt will strike. The presence of metal makes absolutely no difference on where lightning strikes. Mountains are made of stone but get struck by lightning many times a year. When lightning threatens, take proper protective action immediately by seeking a safe shelter, don’t waste time removing metal. While metal does not attract lightning, it does conduct it so stay away from metal fences, railing, bleachers, etc.
Myth: If trapped outside and lightning is about to strike, I should lie flat on the ground. Fact: Lying flat increases your chance of being affected by potentially deadly ground current. If you are caught outside in a thunderstorm, you keep moving toward a safe shelter.
Myth: lightning flashes are 3-4 km apart Fact: Old data said successive flashes were on the order of 3-4 km apart. New data shows half the flashes are about 9 km apart. The National Severe Storms Laboratory report concludes: “It appears the safety rules need to be modified to increase the distance from a previous flash which can be considered to be relatively safe, to at least 10 to 13 km (6 to 8 miles). In the past, 3 to 5 km (2-3 miles) was as used in lightning safety education.” Source: Separation Between Successive Lightning Flashes in Different Storms Systems: 1998, Lopez & Holle, from Proceedings 1998 Intl Lightning Detection Conference, Tucson AZ, November 1998.
Myth: A High Percentage of Lightning Flashes Are Forked. Fact: Many cloud-to-ground lightning flashes have forked or multiple attachment points to earth. Tests carried out in the US and Japan verify this finding in at least half of negative flashes and more than 70% of positive flashes. Many lightning detectors cannot acquire accurate information about these multiple ground lightning attachments. Source: Termination of Multiple Stroke Flashes Observed by Electro- Magnetic Field: 1998, Ishii, et al. Proceedings 1998 Int’l Lightning Protection Conference, Birmingham UK, Sept. 1998.
Myth: Lightning Can Spread out Some 60 Feet After Striking Earth. Fact: Radial horizontal arcing has been measured at least 20 m. from the point where lightning hits ground. Depending on soils characteristics, safe conditions for people and equipment near lightning termination points (ground rods) may need to be re-evaluated. Source: 1993 Triggered Lightning Test Program: Environments Within 20 meters of the Lightning Channel and Small Are Temporary Protection Concepts: 1993, SAND94-0311, Sandia Natl Lab, Albuquerque NM.
- Cape Canaveral Air Force Station/Kennedy Space Center has documented anvil lightning traveling 87.5 mph.
- How far can you see lightning? According to Cape Canaveral/Kennedy Space Center, up to 100-km flashes.
- Lightning Causes Forest Fires. Can Forest Fires Cause Lightning? Yes, smoke and carbon micro-particles, when introduced into the upper atmosphere, can become the initiators of static. Sufficient atmospheric static can spark discharge as lightning. Reports of massive lightning storms in coastal Brazil, Peru and Hawaii have been linked to burning of sugar cane fields. The late 90’s Mexican forest fires resulted in unusual lightning activity in the USA High Plains area (Lyons, et al.) So too can dust in an enclosed grain elevator create a static discharge. Recent reports (Orville, et al) show the Houston TX petrochemical industry, discharging copious amounts of hydrocarbons into the upper atmosphere, may be responsible for higher-than-normal lightning activity in that area. (National Lightning Safety Institute)