When to bolt: Deciding best time to stop sporting events due to lightning

Weather

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — It’s not always easy to predict when sporting events should be delayed because of lightning, especially since weather can change at a moment’s notice, so awareness is key.

According to the National Weather Service documentation, lightning kills about 30 people each year and injures hundreds more, and about two-thirds happen during outdoor activities. In 2020, 17 people were killed by lightning strikes, and so far this year, there have been 10, the NWS reported.

Over the last 60 years, Florida, considered the “lightning capital” of the country, has had the most lightning-related deaths, followed by Texas and North Carolina. And a majority of those fatalities are people playing outside sports.

Whether it’s soccer, football or golf, if you are outside with a storm nearby, you are in danger, so paying attention to the weather is critical.

The NWS says sports officials need to understand thunderstorms and lightning to be able to effectively decide when to stop play and seek safety.

“Without this knowledge, officials may base their decisions on personal experience and or a desire to complete the activity,” the NWS stated. “Unfortunately, decisions based on past experience or a desire to complete the activity can put the lives of those involved at risk.”

You hear it often: “When thunder roars, go indoors.”

In general, if you can hear thunder, the storm is close enough that you can get struck by lightning since lightning can strike more than 10 miles outside the parent thunderstorm, even when it’s sunny. That’s called a bolt from the blue.

The NWS offers a list of warning signs to look for when deciding when to stop outdoor activities:

  • Lightning is visible. The time of day, weather conditions and obstructions — such as trees or mountains — can affect your ability to see lightning. If obstructions don’t limit visibility and the air is clear, especially at night, lightning can be seen from storms more than 10 miles away.
  • Thunder can be heard. Thunder typically can be heard about 10 miles away as long as there is no background noise.
  • Threatening skies. Thunderstorms can form right overhead, and some may develop lightning as soon as they move into an area.

The rule of thumb for resuming sporting events is to wait 30 minutes after the last lightning strike.

If you are caught outside for any reason during a storm, find an enclosed building or a car with the windows rolled up. Never take shelter under a tree because if lightning strikes it, the current can jump to you if you’re standing too close or even travel through the ground.

In fact, the NWS says, during a thunderstorm, “there is no place outside that is safe.”

“Stop the activity immediately and get to a safe place immediately,” the agency says.

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