The current NCAA policy requires that play be suspended if there is lightning within 8 miles of the stadium
The opening weekend of college football is like a holiday for many fans, including me. I love college football. I attended Florida State University and direct the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. Both schools have strong college football programs so it is in my blood. Both schools were among a group of several schools affected by lightning delays on opening Saturday. Ultimately, the University of Georgia game was suspended after the threat of a 2nd weather delay. Other games throughout the nation, but primarily the South, were delayed or canceled. Meteorologist Alex Lamer provided a nice overview of the climatology with the lightning delays mapped to it (see Figure). It prompted @JohnBakerFSU to tweet to me the following question:
Is the NCAA’s lightning policy too restrictive?
My answer: A resounding NO.
The current NCAA policy requires that play be suspended if there is lightning within 8 miles of the stadium. It requires a 30 minute delay, but this may vary because the time count will restart if a lightning strike occurs within the 8 mile radius.
WCNC Charlotte Meteorologist Brad Panovich (@WxBrad), one of the most admired and “Twitter TWTR +0.00% Followed” meteorologists in the nation, argues that professional sports leagues like the National Football League and Major League Baseball should emulate the NCAA. I can’t disagree with him. In the past two years alone, I have seen pictures or videos of “full, large, metal-containing facilities” or stadiums with cloud-to-ground lightning strikes happening. In fact, this lightning strike at the Cincinnati Reds stadium this past week makes my point abundantly clear. Yes, your photo is going to be awesome for Instagram or Facebook, but you are in danger. Brad Panovich writes to me in a message:
I have long admired the NCAA lightning policy. It is stunning that the pros just have a patch work of facility/stadium and team policies with no centralized system. I mean our neighborhood pool that is life guarded by college kids has a better concrete policy than most pro sports leagues. Which I think if the pros showed a solid policy than a lot of these little leagues and children’s sports leagues would emulate as well. Those are the associations and activities that scare me to death. I see kids sporting events always going on during lightning, which 9 times out of 10 the parents are looking at an app trying to play smartphone meteorologist.
While I applaud the University actions, I cringed as I saw many fans still sitting in the stadiums during the various lightning delays. At a few stadiums, the fans only moved to the concourse levels once rain started. I find this amusing and disturbing because “lightning can kill you, rain just gets you wet.” Such perception of threat is an entire set of studies in itself for the emerging social sciences-weather literature. I even saw a student run onto the field during a lightning delay at the Tennessee vs Bowling Green State University game.
There were a few other cringe-worthy aspects to the day as well. I saw many broadcasters or fans speaking of the lighting or rain delays as “Severe Weather Delays.” I know this is probably in the meteorological weeds for most of the public, but it is important to note that in the United States “Severe Weather” has a very specific distinctions that are nicely defined by the National Weather Service.
As a public service announcement, I want to also remind many of the public information offices that lightning is spelled without an “e”. I saw this too many times and it is unfortunately quite common. In fact, so much so that on a visit to Weather Geeks, James Spann, the legendary Meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, offers an amusing reminder.
Dr. Kevin Kloesel, University Meteorologist with the University of Oklahoma Office of Emergency Preparedness and I discussed these very issues recently on The Weather Channel, and he is now leading a writing team for the American Meteorological Society to develop a Statement on Weather Safety and Outdoor Venues.
The NCAA should the be the rule not the exception. Meteorological knowledge is sufficient for sports organizations to make pro-active decisions and avoid “shocking” outcomes.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President.