Skip to main content

Emergency Management

Lightning

WHAT IS LIGHTNING? 

Lightning is the atmospheric discharge of electricity. It can occur within clouds, between clouds, and even from clouds to clear air. However, the most dangerous is cloud-to-ground lightning, which can strike people, animals, trees, towers and buildings. Lightning occurs when electricity occurs between areas of opposite electrical charge. When the attraction between positive and negative charges becomes strong enough to overcome the air's resistance, lightning flashes.

WHY IS LIGHTNING DANGEROUS? 

Simply put, a person can be killed or seriously injured if lightning strikes them or an object in close contact to them. Even people indoors have been killed by lightning travelling through wires and pipes. An average of 10 people in Florida are killed by lightning strikes annually and 40 are seriously injured. Many of the survivors suffer severe lifelong disabilities.

WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF LIGHTNING STRIKES?

  • Direct Strike: A bolt of lightning strikes you directly, carrying 30,000 amps, 100-million volts, and temperature potential of 50,000 degrees Fehrenheit. Needless to say, very few people survive a direct strike.
  • Contact Voltage / Conduction: You are touching an object which is struck by lightning. Examples include direct contact with building surfaces, towers, poles, vehicle surfaces, wiring, and plumbing.
  • Side Flash: You are struck by a bolt of lightning that arcs to you from an object that was struck, creating a path of least resistance.
  • Step Voltage / Ground Streamers: Lightning strikes within 100 feet of you and the voltage jumps across the ground, wet pavement, pools of water, or other electrical pathways to touch you as well.

The vast majority of lightning casualties are from the indirect effects of contact voltage, side flash, and step voltage or ground streamers; NOT direct strikes.

WHO GETS STRUCK THE MOST? 

Of those killed by lightning in Florida:

  • 98% were outdoors.

  • 89% were male.

  • 30% were age 10-19.

  • 20% were age 20-29.

  • 25% were standing under a tree. 

  • 25% occurred on or near water.

HOW BAD IS LIGHTNING IN FLORIDA? 

Of the 50 United States, Florida is the lightning capital. While the most frequent lightning strikes occur in the Tampa Bay area, the chance of being struck by lightning in Florida is 1 in 3,000 over the course of a lifetime. Statistically, that means 20 Seminoles walking on campus today will be struck by lightning at some point in their life, if they stay in Florida. Florida accounts for 16% of the average annual fatalities in the United States.

WHAT CAN I DO TO REDUCE MY CHANCES? 

Clearly, moving indoors offers the best protection from lightning. The best structure is a large, fully enclosed building that has electrical wiring and plumbing. Small, light, or open-air structures such as picnic shelters, sheds, car ports, garages, golf shelters, tents, greenhouses, and baseball dugouts are NOT considered safe buildings. Once inside, you want to avoid using any electrical device or taking a shower or bath, as lightning does travel through wiring and pipes. This includes electrical, telephone, cable, internet, and water. Stay away from doors and windows.

WHAT IF I AM STUCK OUTDOORS? 

If you cannot find a structure to seek shelter in, the next best thing is a vehicle. the current from the bolt travels through the metal and jumps to the ground from the wheel, protecting the occupants.  Avoid contact with the outside surfaces of the vehicle. Otherwise, this is your last resort: Avoid tall, isolated objects such as trees, lights, towers, poles. Lightning typically strikes the tallest object. Avoid metal objects such as fences, poles, unbrellas, and golf clubs. Crouch down (do not lay down or sit) in the lowest point that is not likely to flood or pond up in the rain.

HOW FAR AWAY CAN LIGHTNING REACH? 

Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles, and in some extreme cases up to 20 miles, from the area where it is raining. That is about the distance you can hear thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance. Seek shelter immediately. This also means that you can be struck by lightning even if the sky is perfectly blue and clear around you. No place outside is safe when thunderstorms are in the area!

WHEN IS LIGHTNING SEASON? 

Lightning can occur year-round in Florida, but is more typical during the spring, summer, and fall. Spring and fall thunderstorms are generally associated with the passing of weather fronts. These are easily forecasted and ample warning is provided. However, summertime thunderstorms are often referred to as "popcorn" storms as they can form right on top of you with little to no warning. The first bolt of lightning from a pop-up thunderstorm could be the killer.

DOES FSU HAVE A LIGHTNING DETECTION SYSTEM?

Definitely! Now, you do to. In partnership with WeatherSTEM, you can create a free login on any WeatherSTEM station website to access their Zap Map and configure personal notifications when lightning is near.  They also provide convenient tools to estimate what time it may be safe to resume normal activities.  Visit our Current Weather page and click on your favorite WeatherSTEM station for details.  

WHEN SHOULD WE SEEK SHELTER? 

The National Weather Service promotes "When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!" If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning.  Florida State University uses an 8-mile safety buffer when making lightning safety decisions for most outdoor activities.   If lightning strikes within 8 miles of FSU, you should seek shelter. 

HOW LONG DO WE NEED TO HIDE FOR? 

To ensure your safety, it is best to wait at least 30 minutes from the last bolt of lightning within 8-10 miles of your location.  For each new lightning strike within 8-10 miles, you need to restart the wait time.  

IS AN 'FSU ALERT' ISSUED FOR LIGHTNING? 

No, we do not issue FSU ALERT emergency alert messages for most cases of lightning. Lightning occurs so frequently in Florida, especially during the summer, that most people would become desensitized to the repeated alerts. However, we will issue an FSU ALERT if lightning is occuring within 8 miles of campus when there is a known large congregation of people outdoors (such as athletic events, tailgating, festivals, fairs, ice cream socials, etc). FSU ALERT messages are always issued if a thuderstorm reaches severe limits: winds in excess of 60MPH or hail larger than 1-inch in diameter.

NCAA REGULATIONS: 

The NCAA has established Guideline 1E (below) for Lightning Safety. Based on these guidelines, FSU Athletics uses a lightning detection service for outdoor athletic events. If cloud-to-ground lightning is detected withina 15-mile radius of an athletic facility, a Lightning Advisory is issued. Personnel are alerted and initial preparedness activites are taken. If the system detects lightning within 8-miles of the facility, all play or practice is suspended and all persons (players, coaches, officials, and fans) are directed to seek shelter. Athletic activites are not resumed until at least 30 minutes after the last cloud-to-ground lightning is detected within the 15-mile radius.

SPECIAL CONSIDERATION - STORM SPEED: The NCAA rule about 8 and 15-mile ranges is based upon traveling thunderstorms such as those associated with with frontal passages. These storms are more predictable and easier to track. Arrival time can be estimated by the forward movement of the storm. Make sure ample time is available to complete the logistical requirements for clearing the play field and spectator seating. The larger the crowd, the more time you need to evacuate.

SPECIAL CONSIDERATION - SUMMERTIME 'POPCORN' THUNDERSTORMS: The NCAA rule about 8 and 15-mile ranges is based upon traveling thunderstorms such as those associated with with frontal passages. During the summertime in Florida, our thunderstorms tend to form right on top of us. As such, we have very little time to detect and warn of a lightning strike until it has already happened. We cannot see them coming on radar as they are forming right above us. These storms tend to travel little and rain themselves out within the same area that they formed. However, use caution because a new storm may be forming nearby or in the same location a little later in the day.

For More Information:
National Weather Service - Lightning Safety
Florida Division of Emergency Management - Lightning Safety
NCAA Guideline 1E: Lightning Safety