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Beach lightning detection systems are NOT the answer!

Annual weather hazard statistics, spanning the period 1984 to 2013.  Lightning is low risk compared to other weather hazards.
Annual weather hazard statistics, spanning the period 1984 to 2013. Lightning is low risk compared to other weather hazards.

WEATHERTORIAL: The following opinions are mine alone. This weathertorial has been shared with local governmental officials in the Naples to Cape Coral area.

Nearby thunderstorm did not affect Naples beachgoers.  They stayed, even though the storm was just three miles away.
H. Michael Mogil

On July 22, 2014, lightning claimed one life and injured two on a Fort Myers, FL beach. Almost immediately, cries for beach lightning detection systems surfaced and since then have been pushed for intensely. There’s even a Cape Coral grandmother who is lobbying for such safety systems.

I am a strong proponent of lightning safety and have been so since the early 1970’s when I worked for the National Weather Service (NWS) Warnings and Preparedness Program Offices. Looking back, I know that some of our rules were not the best, based on current knowledge and practices. However, over time, as weather scientists gained knowledge and put it into practice, lightning awareness has brought lightning casualty numbers down substantially from what they were 40 years ago. Deaths across the nation annually back then numbered near 100 a year. Now they are mostly in the 20 to 35 per year range (Fig. 1). This is below the number of deaths for most weather hazards now and far below the death rate for many other dangers that exist in our everyday lives (e.g., driving cars).

Lightning detection systems are a viable tool in battling the lightning risk. This starts with the National Lightning Detection Network, a cloud-to-ground detecting system, owned and operated by Vaisala. The data is used by the NWS in real-time as part of its warning system operations. There are other, more localized, lightning detection systems in operation (e.g., in west central Florida; APRSFL stands for Automated Packet Reporting System Florida). In some cases, lightning detection systems are used to just alert golfers or those engaged in outdoor after school activities of nearby danger (Fig. 2). Sirens are often activated when lightning is within about five miles of the alarm sensor.

Any of these systems can be part of a viable lightning protection program, as long as they are monitored and there are people who can force others to take safety precautions. Many golf courses use lightning detection systems to keep golfers and event attendees safer. Many Florida schools use local systems to ensure students engaged in outdoor activities are brought to safety when lightning is nearby.

However, unstaffed systems take on a much different flavor and can actually increase liability for the operator, while not necessarily having the desired safety effect.

Let me share two recent examples from Naples, FL.

On Thur., Aug. 7, 2014, I was at Lowdermilk Beach with some summer weather campers, their parents and one of my interns. Dark clouds built inland and just before 10:00 a.m. E.D.T., we saw lightning and heard thunder. Using the Mississippi counting algorithm, I got to 15 Mississippi, thus estimating that the lightning was three miles away. What was amazing was that no one...not a single person…gave up their beach time to head for his / her car, a large nearby pavilion or any other place of safety (Fig. 3).

A few hours later, only distant thunderstorms graced the Naples skies (Fig. 4).

On Sat., Aug. 16, 2014, sirens sounded on our North Naples community golf course. We had heard thunder moments earlier. Not a single golfer gave ground and headed for shelter. They simply played on.

In both cases, it was NOT raining

These two incidents suggest that costly, unstaffed, lightning systems on local area beaches will literally be, “pouring money down the drain.” Sirens may sound, but beach-goers (whether locals or tourists) are unlikely to respond (until rain starts to fall, that is).

Instead, the alarms, going off frequently, especially in warmer months, will probably bother beach-goers. If lightning detection systems are installed, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear cries for siren removal in future years.

Since beaches already advertise undertaking activities at, “your own risk (Fig. 5),” why should lightning be any different than other dangers (such as rip currents, sunburn and even the occasional shark)?

For rip currents (a far more deadly danger than lightning), red flags are posted for the risk (at some beaches). Maybe local officials just need to add another sign to the beaches about lightning risk, assessment and suggested safety actions. The sign can end with, “…at your own risk” or perhaps, with a message that one should, “use common sense when lightning threatens.”

This signage solution (in which people own their individual safety) would be far less costly than the proposed lightning detection systems. It would also be highly educational for all beach-goers. Given the overall lighting risk and apparent public response to the lightning danger, my cost-benefit assessment dictates a no-go for lightning detection systems at public, unstaffed beaches.

© H. Michael Mogil, 2014

H. Michael Mogil is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist and Certified Broadcast Meteorologist, who lives in Naples, FL.

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