When It Comes to Lightning Strikes, There Are No Mulligans

Date Posted: May 18, 2016

brad nelson
Brad Nelson and a colleague monitor the weather conditions during an event. If lightning or other hazardous weather conditions are detected, the Schneider Electric team immediately contacts event officials to ensure safety for all in attendance.

The power of lightning is awe-inspiring, but it poses a deadly risk to people. Over the past decade there has been an average of 31 documented lightning fatalities each year in the United States. Anyone caught outside during a thunderstorm is at risk for getting struck by lightning. On the open landscape of a golf course people are especially at risk, because they often end up being the tallest object, and the metal clubs they carry are an ideal conductor for lightning.

In 1991, a person was struck by lightning and killed while attending the US Open at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. Later that same year another spectator was struck by lightning and killed at the PGA championship in Carmel, Indiana. These two fatalities exemplify the real risk of lightning. To better protect the safety of the fans and the players, the PGA began hiring a private weather company that specializes in lightning detection. Since 2005, Schneider Electric has been providing this service for the PGA.

weather warning pga
“Weather warning” signs are posted across the course to inform spectators of incoming hazardous weather.

Brad Nelson is an on-site meteorologist for Schneider Electric which uses special equipment that can detect charges building in a cloud. He is able to generate a lightning forecast specifically for the golf course using cloud electrification data along with the latest radar data. He relays this information to the PGA which allows them to safely get people to shelter before a storm arrives. “We have a very good safety record”, said Nelson. “We’ve evacuated events before there was even a lightning strike.” This preemptive action happens on average one or two times per year. Once the decision is made to suspend play, the players head into the clubhouse, and the crowds are encouraged to leave the grounds and seek shelter. Given the tens of thousands of people that attend these events, the best shelter often ends up being their car, and that is a much safer place from lightning than being outside.

People’s safety is first and foremost for Schneider Electric, so they were a natural fit for the Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador initiative, and their partnership with the National Weather Service paid dividends this past summer. The PGA championship was ongoing just north of Milwaukee, and a fast moving line of thunderstorms developed in northern Wisconsin and moved southeast, heading straight for the golf course. The National Weather Service Office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin provided forecast information for the storms to local emergency management. This allowed them time to put security personnel in place to ensure an orderly exit of spectators. Meanwhile, Schneider Electric worked with the PGA to alert the players and crowds to the dangers of the approaching storm. By working together and providing decision support on the approaching weather, thousands of people were able to leave the course and seek shelter before the storm hit, and there were no fatalities.

weather observing equipment
Weather observing equipment is set up on the golf course and used to monitor conditions and detect lightning in the area.

This type of collaboration will be key again this coming September when the Ryder Cup comes to Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. Twenty-five years ago this was the site of a lightning fatality, however this time Schneider Electric will be on site with lightning detection equipment. In addition, Hazeltine National Golf Club is now a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador. Should hazardous weather strike, they are committed to ensuring the safety of everyone during this event.

Lightning is a real hazard that can be deadly. People need to take shelter immediately if they are at risk. The best way to do that is to have a plan before you leave for the day. “Don’t think that just because there’s only a 20% chance of thunderstorms you’re safe,” says Brad. “Have a plan in mind to get to a safe, permanent structure or vehicle if a storm develops.” Those are great words to live by the next time you venture outdoors.

Lightning Science Facts
A lightning strike is a sudden discharge of static electricity that builds up over time in a cloud. This bolt of electricity can be as hot as 50,000 degrees fahrenheit and carry as much as 100 million to 1 billion volts! Lightning heats the air and causes it to expand nearly instantaneously. The rapid expansion of the air creates a shockwave, which quickly becomes a soundwave and this is what we hear as thunder. When lightning is ten miles or so away a low rumble is heard, but when lightning is nearby the thunder sounds more like a loud crack.