Lightning and Youth Sports

I thought in 2014 the message would be obvious.


My son plays youth baseball. One evening in May, a thunderstorm approached the fields where he was playing.  I was needed in the office, and my wife was at the game. We communicated back and forth regarding the movement of this lone thunderstorm cell.

Both my wife and I are professional meteorologists. We both carry a lightning detection app on our phones.  The app costs two dollars.

In between innings at our son’s game, she made the umpire aware that lightning was within 5 miles of the field. Unfortunately, the umpire invoked his machismo and was initially dismissive of this information, telling her, “I’ll keep an eye on it,” as the game continued.

While our son’s game was briefly suspended a short time later, other games at the complex were allowed to continue without regard to the nearby storm.

I understand the desire to get the games in.

I know there is a sentiment that it can’t happen here.

I watch as crowd mentality takes over. People grumble and complain when there is a weather delay, especially if there is no rain coming down, and the thunder seems distant.

I recognize that, statistically, a lightning strike at any one particular spot is a low probability event.

However, when thunder is audible, that location is at immediate risk of a lightning strike. It is not uncommon for lightning to strike 10 miles away from the center of a storm. In rare cases, 20 miles away.  It happens.  You may not have seen it happen, but it does happen. 

Let me make this simple for anyone who is in charge of a youth sports organization or an umpire.  If you hear thunder, GET THE KIDS OFF THE FIELD!

Courtesy: NOAA Photo Library and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Courtesy: NOAA Photo Library and the National Severe Storms Laboratory.

There were 23 lightning fatalities in the United States in 2013. I have twice spoken to a support group consisting of people who have survived lightning strikes. Their stories are harrowing.

My wife and I are continually disturbed by the cavalier attitude many umpires show toward lightning. Perhaps it is not fair to single out a particular umpire, but it is symptomatic of a wider problem.  Consider how a few people responded to the situation I shared above.

Beth Tucker: “AMEN !!!!!!!!!!!!! My 14 year old nephew was struck & tragically killed by lightning June 9, 2007. He was running with his brother to shelter when the isolated storm came up. GET THOSE CHILDREN INSIDE !!!!!!!!!!!”

Charlene Bostic: “My daughter was just missed by a lightning strike 6 years ago. It hit two trees less than 10 feet away. It killed the trees. My daughter said she felt the hair on her body standing up. She saw a ball of light shoot out of the ground where she was just standing before she ran to the work building in our yard.”

Nate McClure: “I was appalled last night at how long the Athletic Association waited before getting everyone off the field.”

* * *

If you run a youth athletic sports program and have a lightning safety plan, thank you. Be sure it is enforced.

If there is not, one should be immediately developed. Umpires must enforce a consistent lightning policy. As a parent and meteorologist, I will not stand idly by while an umpire, with no experience or reliable data, and under peer pressure from parents, forces a game to continue when there is a legitimate risk to the safety of the players.

As a professional, I recommend an immediate pause in the game upon any audible thunder.  Or at absolute minimum, let the batter finish his/her at bat, then clear the field. The suggested subsequent course of action is for all people to seek shelter in their automobiles, however, each individual must be responsible for his/her own safety.

Play should not resume until at least 15 minutes after the last audible thunder. Thirty minutes is a better suggestion. That is the amount of time set by the Virginia High School League and is consistent with guidelines from the National Weather Service

And look, I get it.  I cannot count how many times a thunderstorm has drifted safely by, only 3 or 4 miles away.  Inevitably, a spectator needs to chest-thump, “See, I knew it was going miss us.”

Yes. It missed. No one is dead. The roulette wheel did not come up with green double zeroes.

Image from

Image from

This is usually the same person who “knows” they are going to win the lottery. 

It is in the best legal interest of any youth sports organization to have a policy in place before something tragic happens.

As I mentioned on social media previously, if you like to chances, go play Yahtzee.  I will not let you do it at a youth baseball game.



About seansublette

Meteorologist at Climate Central. Broadcast meteorologist in Virginia from 1995 to 2015. Born and raised in Richmond, VA. Penn State alumnus. Loves baseball and the rock band Rush. Views are independent of my employer. Past performance does not guarantee future results.
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