Stadium Strikes: The risk of lightning at football games

Huntsville, Ala. (WHNT)– College football stadiums are among the most popular outdoor venues in the southeast– the same area which is prone to a high number a thunderstorms with potentially-deadly lightning strikes.

With hundreds of thousands of people now gathering outdoors each weekend to cheer on their favorite teams, the threat of lightning is much more apparent. Dozens of pictures posted on social media during the first official weekend of college football showed lightning strikes dangerously close to football stadiums.

That prompted researchers from Mississippi State University to determine the risk of lightning strikes to outdoor football stadiums in the southeast United States.

The research used data from the National Lightning Detection Network (NLDN) 2001-2011 dataset of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes. 81 outdoor National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I-III stadiums made up the domain of the study.

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Reagan M, Brown M, Farney T, Kroot R, Owen N, et al.(2013) NCAA Football and Cloud-to-Ground Lightning: A Probability Analysis. J Geogr Nat Disast 3:112. doi: 10.4172/2167-0587.1000112

The NCAA has strict guidelines in place in the event of a thunderstorm with lightning.

If lightning strikes within 15 miles of a stadium, on-field officials are notified. When a strike happens within 10 miles of the stadium, on-field officials are notified and a public address announcement is made recommending fans to seek shelter. A strike within six miles or less of a stadium prompts players and officials to get off the field and the game is delayed until 30 minutes after the last strike occurs within six miles.

“They [cover] the whole season and [are] really effective,” says Bryce Williams, a contributor to the Mississippi State research.

Among the data the research team discovered, the months of August and September both averaged more than 500,000 strikes per week. October and November both averaged less than 500,000 cloud-to-ground strikes per week. To account for the temporal variation in the number of strikes, the team broke these four months into two categories. This allows them to better assess the risk of a strike near a stadium.

In total, there were more than seven million strikes within the study area for the entire football season. Two million of those strikes occurred during the first week of the season– This highlights the enhanced lightning risk posed during the last week of August.

Spatially, a maximum of lightning strikes was observed along the immediate Gulf Coast, but Williams says the team determined “there was no significant difference between any of the three regions” the team broke the study into. He adds, “There was no significant increase between the beginning of the season and the second half of the season”– meaning that despite a higher number of strikes in August and September, the chance of being struck toward the end of the season is proportionally about the same.

The Florida Gators’ season opener Saturday was canceled due to lightning. Fans at Jordan-Hare stadium watching Auburn battle Arkansas had to take shelter for a brief weather delay in the 4th quarter of their game Saturday.

On average, about 25 million lightning strikes hit the ground in the United States every year. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas (four of the states in the domain of Mississippi State’s research) rank within the top five states in terms of average strike density. Louisiana ranks highest out of these four with an average strike density of 19.7 strikes per square mile. Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas rank third, fourth, and fifth respectively.

(Video courtesy Andrew McElvey of Locust Fork)

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