How to forget the lightning and focus on the sport​

July 12, 2021

No matter what your child does for extracurricular activities – ballet, theater, track, you name it – you want them to be safe while doing it. The same is true for the hundreds of families arriving in Minnesota with their young soccer players for this week's USA CUP. The same wide-open spaces that allow players plenty of room to dribble and pass can also be risky places for lightning strikes, should the summer weather turn foul.

TheThor Guard lightning detection system at the National Sports Center in Blaine National Sports Center (NSC) in Blaine, which is hosting the tournament, is mitigating such risks with its new lightning detection system. To build the system, the NSC used funds from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) division administers these federal grants, which help fund sustainable projects that reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property from future disasters.

The lightning detection system is called Thor Guard, and it has been operational since spring 2020. It uses sensors at the NSC Welcome Center that not only detect but also predict lightning. Many other systems work by detecting a thunderstorm's first strike and then sounding the alarm, but Thor Guard samples the electrostatic energy in the atmosphere over 170,000 times per second. The storm's strength, speed, and intensity determine when the system issues an alert and the subsequent all clear to people at the NSC.

The Thor Guard sensors are connected to clusters of horns located throughout the NSC campus. Whenever lighting is detected, the horns sound an alert staff and visitors. The horn clusters also contain strobe lights for lightning and two levels of heat warnings, which can help players avoid heat-related conditions like dehydration and heatstroke. In addition, any member of the public can view the information picked up by the sensors on NSC's ThorTV​ website.

The NSC is the world's largest amateur sports facility, hosting everything from golf to rugby, which means there are large numbers of staff and visitors on campus every day. The Thor Guard system helps keep them all safe by giving officials plenty of time to suspend play and seek shelter before that first lightning strike on or near the campus.

In the case of the USA CUP, the system will operate normally, but staff and medical personal will use the Thor Guard data to suspend play before Thor Guard issues an alert. Because there will be so many more visitors than usual, it will take longer to get everybody to shelter in the event of lighting, so suspending play earlier will give staff the extra time they need.

So far, the NSC staff is impressed with the new lightning detection system. “We are very pleased with the results we have seen so far with Thor Guard," says Bret Kirchner, NSC's golf course superintendent and head of the Thor Guard project. “It provides plenty of lead time for people to seek shelter, but also eliminates false alarms by using the advanced algorithms."

With the new lightning detection system up and running, athletes of all ages can relax and focus on what brought them to the NSC in the first place: Playing the sport they love.