When Lightning Strikes

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Lightning has always been a problem with chairlifts, but now, with ziplines, canopy tours and more, staying on top of the weather is more important than ever.





Summer time and the living is easy? For a resort operations manager, likely not as much as the average guest may think when, say, hiking through wildflowers or lunching at a mountaintop restaurant. High winds, flash flooding and even the rare tornado (in the Northeast) are all viable threats that deserve consideration. But the greatest threat of all is lightning.

Specific data for lightning at ski resorts in the summer is limited. In winter, when lightning is relatively rare, 91 incidents related to skiing and lightning have been documented by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 1995. Summer strikes are obviously much more common.

In general, safety measures have been increasingly successful at protecting people over the past 75 years or so. Lightning deaths have been steadily on the decline, a statistic the National Weather Service attributes to greater awareness and better safety protocol. A record low of 26 people died from lightning in 2011, compared with an average of 300 per year in the 1940s, when the population was half as large as today. Clearly, safety measures work.

Lightning risk is generally highest in the summer months and typically comes between two and six p.m. The risk extends out several miles from the source, too. “Once you hear thunder you are in danger,” says NOAA’s specialist on lightning safety John Jensenius.

He recommends having a safety plan that includes four key components:
  • the necessary equipment and software to receive critical information on lightning, and someone to monitor that information and be responsible for making critical decisions
  • a notification system that alerts staff and the public of dangerous situations
  • safe shelters, and sufficient time for people to reach them before the threat arrives
  • an education program, with some means to inform the public of the safety measures.
Jensenius points out that all the existing outdoor safety protocols from NOAA are relevant to ski areas, and recommends resorts review the information online.

Russ Murley, operations manager for Precision Weather, a specialized forecasting service based in New England, points out that there are myriad summer weather hazards but notes, “the biggest threat we see in summer ski area operations is obviously lightning.” The general increase in summer operations across the continent means resorts need to stay on top of technology like radar monitoring systems, he adds.

“You’re going to have varying amounts of lightning exposure with all the new summer ops out there. With things like scenic chair rides, canopy tours, or ziplines, you have more exposure with the metallic elements of the attraction. Not only do you have a mostly steel chairlift, but now you’ve got a wire rope running through the trees,” says Murley.

FORECASTING AND RISK


Tony Vazzano, who has run North Winds Weather, a personalized weather service out of New Hampshire, since 1983, would certainly like to encourage resorts to use his services. But he acknowledges that the flourishing of free or inexpensive weather services can be of great service to ski areas, too. Today, Vazzano and Murley retain only a handful of clients in the summer; Vazzano’s sole summer client Stratton Mountain, Vt.

“There is a wealth of information available on the Internet that wasn’t there 20 years ago, and if they [the ski areas] know how to use the information from the Internet, weather sites will show you recent lightning strike locations and storm direction,” says Vazzano.

“If an operator knows there is a 30 to 40 percent chance of a thunderstorm, then somebody should be monitoring that situation both with lightning detection and radar. With the radar loops that everyone can have on their desk, that’s great information, as you can see what direction the storms are coming from,” says Vazzano.

While Murley understands personalized weather services are an “extra layer of safety for the guests,” he realizes it’s an extra expense as well. “Most resorts have a pretty good safety plan, and some have on-site lightning detection,” he says. On-site lightning detection generally comes by way of subscription-based services from private companies such as WeatherTap or the wealth of weather information available from the National Weather Service websites. There are local networks, too, and WeatherUSA has a nice summary of some of those available sites. Intellicast also has a lightning website.

“Some resorts have the actual detection hardware on-site,” he adds. “We recommend the Boltec devices for our clients.”

ON THE GROUND METHODS


At Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor (where a rare April lightning strike temporarily disabled two ski lifts), the Pine Marten lift is open in the summer to provide lift access to mountain biking as well as a mid-mountain restaurant.

For lightning concerns on this lift, the Bachelor ski patrol uses a lightning monitoring program through WeatherTap. This service uses data from the North American Precision Lightning Network (NAPLN) to depict the locations and age of recent lightning strikes, and offers updated information every ten minutes, all made available via a map on the computer.

“It tells us when lightning is 50, 40, 30 miles away and so on. At 20 miles away, if it’s getting closer at this point, we will close down the lifts and begin getting people off the mountain,” says Curtis Norsen, Bachelor’s patrol director and risk manager. “The lifts will be grounded and we begin to figure out a way to get the people in the restaurant off the mountain,” he adds. The ideal choice is to download guests via Pine Marten. If that is too risky they will use trucks or snowmobiles depending on snow levels. A last option, and Norsen’s least favorite, is to hold the guests indoors until the danger diminishes and lift operations can resume.

As for protecting the lifts when there is danger present, Norsen and his team will ground out the lift’s haul rope with a clamp, turn off the main power to that lift, and disconnect the panel inside the lift. This greatly reduces the chance of damaging the mechanics of the lift.

At Stratton, Craig Panarisi, vice president of mountain operations, keeps to a detailed protocol when lightning is on the horizon. “We have a golf course manager and a lift operations manager, and these two are ultimately the ones to make the call to take action for safety. They are observing weather via custom forecasts and checking the radar.”

If the danger is perceived to be high enough to interrupt guest services and move guests indoors, buildings around the mountain have been evaluated and designated as safe zones. While there are no generally-accepted data on what defines a safe zone, “They tend to be lower on the mountain and on the lower levels within the buildings,” Panarisi says. Most businesses use existing structures for this purpose.

At Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra, with golf, mountain biking, as well as skiing into the early summer keeping everyone busy, the area reports an average of 20 to 25 days per summer where lightning affects operations.

Despite the high activity, Clifford Mann, director of mountain operations, reports zero injuries to people due to lightning. “We have, however, had lightning hit equipment, trees, and non-operational lift terminals. Lighting strikes have caused power outages and electronic infrastructure damage, as well as fires,” he adds. Mann and his team use Schneider Electric for real-time weather detection via the MxVision WeatherSentry website. Mann reports being satisfied with the program’s efficacy.

PARTING THOUGHTS


Jensenius, also a national spokesperson on lightning awareness, highlights two misconceptions regarding lightning behavior. One is that lightning “usually, but not always” hits the highest elevation. Lightning commonly hits valleys as well as ridgetops, making most terrain on a ski resort a risk area, not just ridgetops or peaks. The second is that lightning is not attracted to metal. Lightning can be conducted through it, but the location of the strike isn’t influenced by the presence of metal. This misconception, he notes, leads people to think that being away from metal-based structures such as lifts or ziplines keeps them out of danger, which isn’t necessarily true.

Like the weather forecasters, Jensenius recommends finding the right type of weather forecasting service, whether it be a private service or something from the wealth of Internet information.

Lastly, he offers a reminder that lightning is a year-round threat: “While it is most common in summer, ski areas are certainly at risk year-round if the right conditions are present.”

As mountain resorts all over the word are discovering, summer operations bring both the potential for increased revenues and relatively quick return on investment. But summer operations also bring new elements of risk, including lightning. And as with most of these new risks, sound preparation and planning are the best defense.

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Comments

Lightning Safety Program

I started a Lightning Safety Program at Angel Fire Resort in 2010 that was very easy for our Lift Operations and Mountain Personnel. I would suggest contacting Andy Whitacre for more info. Cost was around $3500/yr and covered the Golf Course and Lake too.

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