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Myth Buster: There's No Such Thing As Heat Lightning

Have you ever seen lightning way off in the distance and been told that it is heat lightning?

In truth, heat lightning does not really exist. What is often referred to as heat lightning is a commonly misunderstood weather phenomenon.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Many people believe high heat and humidity can cause lightning, but this isn't the case. In reality, what you may have been told is heat lightning is really just lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for you to experience its other effects. There’s no rain, no wind and no thunder — just the sight of lightning off in the distance. 

Lightning can't exist without thunder, because thunder is the sound lightning makes. Both occur when masses of hot and cold air expand rapidly. However, because of differences in how fast light and sound travel and how sound is absorbed, we don't always experience them together.

Light travels farther than sound, so you can see lightning from a thunderstorm from farther away than you can hear the thunder. At night, this effect is more obvious because lightning is more visible when it is dark.

At night, you may be able to see lightning from as far as 100 miles away from the storm. However, you can usually only hear thunder within 10 miles to 15 miles of a storm. That means plenty of storms that pass to the north and south are visible to us, but we never experience rain or thunder.

If you like to watch thunderstorms, what we think of as heat lightning is an opportunity to experience Mother Nature at a safe distance. But always follow this advice: When thunder roars, go indoors.

Lightning is dangerous, and it kills an average of 47 people per year. If you are close enough to a storm to hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning. Always head inside when you hear thunder, and stay indoors until the storm has passed and you can no longer hear it. 

No place outside is a safe shelter from a storm. If you cannot go inside when a storm approaches, look for a hard-topped vehicle. If you are stuck outside, do not go under tall trees or partially enclosed structures. This might help you stay dry, but it makes you more vulnerable to lightning strikes.

Instead, find a low spot like a ditch. Stay as low to the ground as possible. Also, avoid being near water, because it conducts electricity, allowing lightning to travel farther. 


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