Fact or myth: Heat lightning

Weather Education

MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) – Now that we are transitioning from our spring severe weather season into a more summertime pattern, you may start to hear the term “heat lightning.” So what is heat lightning? Technically, it is a myth. While it is still lightning, it is actually lightning from a distant thunderstorm.

“I think a large reason people call it heat lighting is it was a phenomenon if you will that people thought happened during the summertime…during the hot time of the year,” says Jason Beaman with the National Weather Service in Mobile.

In reality, we typically see distant lightning during the summertime because we see more thunderstorms during the summertime. The average thunderstorm is around 30,000 to 40,000 feet, so it is possible to see the storms lightning from 50 to 100 miles away while you can hear the thunder only if you are 10 to 15 miles from the storm. 

“You may be close enough to hear the thunder and it may not be raining, and right above you might be blue sky. And sometimes lighting can strike 10 to 15 miles away from the storm. So that is why it is so important that when you hear thunder, go indoors, because you are close enough to be struck by lightning,” Beaman adds.

This is called “a bolt from the blue.” But how does lightning form in the first place? 

Rising air causes ice particles and water droplets to run into each other inside the cloud. This causes negative charges in the cloud. At this point, the cloud top has positive charges, the bottom has negative charges and the ground has a positive charge. Since opposites attract, energy from the negative charge meets the positive charge and we see a flash. 

Remember, when thunder roars, head indoors!

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