The Dangers of Lightning Over Campus

Lightning is dangerous and unpredictable but FAU’s Thor guard tries to do just that, predict it and lower lightning deaths


Lightning Strikes above Innovation Village Apartment. Photo Illustration by Max Jackson | Staff Photographer

Joe Pye, Contributing Writer

Florida Atlantic and University of Miami fans alike sat on the edge of their seats as UM led the football game on Sept. 11, when suddenly the sound of sirens from the lightning warning system went off. A collective sigh could be heard as the horns faded, and a delay was announced because of an oncoming storm.

Lightning warning systems are all across campus in areas like the football field, soccer fields and pools, because of lightning’s attraction to human bodies.

“Because the human body is basically a bag full of nicely conductive salt water, from the perspective of lightning, it makes a good conduit for the electrical discharge to pass through on its way between the cloud and ground,” says Howard Hanson, an FAU professor of geosciences.

Lightning is very dangerous and can happen suddenly. “Its effects can vary from being a minor injury – perhaps a burned spot or getting knocked out – to a fatality,” says Hanson.

This system of horns and strobes on campus, called the Thor Guard Lightning Prediction System, was put in place as a precaution to warn athletes and spectators of outdoor activities, to take cover during a storm. It was set up by FAU Environmental Health and Safety, the  department on campus in charge of ensuring a safe and healthy environment for students, according to their website.

EHS is responsible for maintaining the Thor system and making sure it’s working properly. According to EHS policy, “The Thor Guard system is able to predict so-called ‘bolts out of the blue,’ which are strikes that seem to come from nowhere and cause a high percentage of lightning fatalities.”

Lightning strikes are not the most common way for someone to die accidentally, but no other part of the world has more lightning deaths per year than Florida at 13, according to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.

Hanson explains that “lightning is an electrical discharge, not unlike a static electricity shock you might get after shuffling your feet (in leather shoes) on a wool rug and then touching, say, a door knob – but lightning, of course, is way, way more electricity.”

Tropical climates, moisture, hot temperatures and high winds all contribute to thunderstorms  and are all readily available in Florida along with places lightning strikes commonly, such as calm water. This has led to Florida’s common attribution of being the lightning capital of the country.

Lightning is unpredictable and with Florida having so much of it, the Thor system goes off frequently, much to the displeasure of athletes  from the rock climbing club to football players. FAU has taken precautions though, and at least there’s no golf course on campus, “where you, after all, are holding metal lightning rods in your hands,” says Hanson.