Sporting events should let meteorologists make weather decisions

Sporting events — particularly in the spring and summer when they’re generally done outdoors — present a hazard to participants and spectators alike. Thunderstorms can send a bolt of lightning in an instant, which can prove lethal. Part of the danger is that lightning can strike miles away from the storm, which means people who think they aren’t at risk might be very much at risk.

Many leagues and venues have adopted a largely sensible lighting policy. If lightning strikes within a certain radius, the activity is suspended and everyone is sent to shelter. After some amount of time without a strike (often 30 minutes), the activity resumes. This is, as a general concept, good advice.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as “if you can see it, flee it. If you can hear it, clear it.” That’s the advice given to the public because it’s simple and easy to remember. But it doesn’t always capture the full story.

To give an example, this summer my local baseball team was playing a game as thunderstorms approached the area. A lightning strike occurred within the 10 mile radius defined by the Prospect League (as an aside, I appreciate the fact that they increased it from the 5 miles it used to be). The umpires suspended play late in the game (it was the 8th inning if I recall).

The trouble with this is that the storm was traveling perpendicular to the stadium. The strike that triggered the delay was well away from the storm and just inside the 10 mile radius. Essentially, it was as close as lightning would come. In this case, continuing play would be a safe decision. And it would have meant pitchers could stay warm and the crowd would have stuck around.

When it comes to weather safety, I’d always prefer overcaution to undercaution. But weather is complex, and the simple rules don’t always fit the situation. Sporting events should always leave weather decisions to meteorologists. High-profile near-misses have raised awareness, but it’s still not universal.

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