The truth about "heat lightning" - WNEM TV 5

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The truth about "heat lightning"

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(Source: WNEM) (Source: WNEM)

Every summer, especially when we're hot and humid, there are two words we hear on occasion: heat lightning. It's a term many of us have probably heard in our lifetime, probably starting from a young age. I certainly heard those words young. This summer has been no different.

When we've had storms pass through a few times this year, when we were pretty hot and humid, I saw these two words pop up again on various Facebook posts concerning the storms and I decided to do an explainer. 

First, what kind of situation do we usually hear the term "heat lightning"?

We usually hear it during the summer time, which of course contributes to the heat portion. In addition, we often associate heat lightning in situations where we see lightning out of our windows or in the sky on a summer night, but hear no sound. I'm sure there may be other opinions on heat lightning, so feel free to share yours!

But although we may have used this term over the years, is heat lightning it's own special weather phenomenon? Simply put, no.

The lightning you are seeing is just regular old lightning from a thunderstorm that is just too far away for you to hear the thunder. The general rule to find out how far lightning is away from you is a distance of 1 mile for every 5 seconds you count before hearing thunder.

Example: If you see lightning, and count 5 seconds before thunder sounds, that lightning was approximately one mile away from you.

This is of course due to the speed of light being much faster than the speed of sound. According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, thunder is seldom heard beyond 10 miles away under ideal atmospheric conditions.

There are some other factors that may prevent the thunder from reaching you at a distance under 10 miles, such as the sound that is traveling toward you may be obstructed by land or certain characteristics of the air that cause a change in direction of sound waves before they reach you.

While I certainly won't judge anyone who continues to use the term, hopefully the explanation brings a little bit more understanding to something you may have always wondered about!

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