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Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight

Lightning in Stadiums Article

In this issue of Ogmius we begin to highlight research projects at the Center.  Our first highlight is a study by ENVS graduate students Joel Gratz and Erik Noble, along with MBA candidate Ryan Church, examining policy responses to the threat of lightning in large college football stadiums.

Lightning, Outdoor Stadiums, and Spectator Safety

When lightning threatens an outdoor activity, the activity is usually postponed so that people may seek the shelter of a safe structure.  When lightning threatens a large outdoor stadium, the game or event itself is usually postponed but it is often difficult to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of spectators who remain in the stadium.

A recent study completed by Joel Gratz (ENVS), Erik Noble (ENVS), and Ryan Church (MBA) found that many large college football stadiums do not have an emergency plan specifically for adverse weather situations.  Although stadiums may employ a general evacuation plan, a complete stadium evacuation is counterproductive to achieving lightning safety for spectators.  Simply asking fans to exit the stadium leaves people in an outdoor, high-risk environment.  Further, the safety of an entire crowd is in jeopardy when stadium officials allow uncontrolled crowd movements as spectators look for sheltered areas within the stadium.

Mass outdoor events which fill stadiums to capacity (usually concerts and football games) are at the highest risk since there is little room for people to move about.  The study detailed at least five lightning-related incidents which occurred at college football games within the last two years.  In some cases, stadium officials did not have adequate and timely knowledge of an approaching storm.  In other cases when stadium officials did have knowledge of an approaching storm, directions given to the crowd frequently resulted in near panic situations where stadium exits were blocked and/or fans were left in the open during the lightning storm.

In the case of collegiate sports, general lightning safety recommendations exist for both players and spectators.  Nevertheless, each stadium is responsible for its specific action plan to ensure the safety of spectators.  In most cases, weather-related emergency action plans do not exist or do a poor job of controlling crowd movements and ensuring the safety of tens to hundreds of thousands of fans.

This study recommended that stadiums and other outdoor venues develop an action plan specific to weather (main focus on lightning) situations.  This action plan should incorporate crowd management strategies to ensure the efficient movement of spectators to safe locations.  Or, the stadium may choose to add certain features (more lightning rods and/or suspended, grounded wires) so that spectators are protected from lightning and can remain in their seats.  Either option is effective, so it is the stadium’s responsibility to choose a preferred method.

Outdoor events are usually stopped when lightning is close by, but few large events have adequate plans to protect the large number of people in attendance.  Outdoor stadiums should fix this safety problem before more incidents occur.

For more details, please see the complete study (PDF).  A version of this article will appear on NOAA’s lightning safety website in the near future.  

Joel Gratz