CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - One of the more common questions I have encountered over my years of covering weather revolves around heat lightning. Most people describe it as flickers and flashes of light, typically at night, with no thunder.
So what is really going on? I'll get right to the point – there is no such thing as heat lightning. The only thing lightning and heat have in common is the blazing heat given off by a lightning strike! It can be five to ten times hotter than the surface of the sun.
So if those silent flickers and flashes aren't heat lightning, then what are they? Well, actual lightning! Generally, you can only hear thunder between 10 – 15 miles away. You can hear thunder from a lightning strike farther away if you're out on open water with no trees or hills around to absorb the sound, and the thunder also propagates better along the water surface.
However, the light from distant lightning flashes can be seen for sometimes hundreds of miles under the right conditions. Even if you are standing out in front of your house with all kinds of trees and buildings blocking your view of distant clouds, you can often see the light skipping across the upper atmosphere even when you are looking straight up.
And finally, I can't talk about lightning without ending on a safety tip. Lightning is a killer, many years killing more people than tornadoes and hurricanes. Always remember, when you hear thunder, get inside! No matter how far away it sounds, if you can hear it, the storm is already close enough where the next lightning strike could reach you.
If you want to see some great shots of lightning, you can never go wrong with National Geographic, click here!