What is heat lightning?

Lightning shot over Uptown Columbus. Photo credit: Chris Largent

This week’s weather question comes from our own chief photographer Kevin Roble of Smiths Station Alabama.

He wants to know what heat lightning is.

Some times when there are evening thunderstorms, you’ll see lightning but not hear any thunder. Some people believe that lightning is caused from the air being so warm and muggy, but this isn’t the case at all.

Heat lightning is the lightning we’re familiar with in average thunderstorms, only it is from a storm far enough away that you don’t hear the thunder.

Now if you’re wondering how lightning is formed in thunderstorms, here’s how:

If you’ve ever rubbed your tennis shoes on carpet and been shocked – this is similar to how lightning forms – through an electrostatic discharge.

Storm clouds are made from ice crystals and water vapor. Ice crystals are higher up in the storm cloud where temperatures are below freezing. When the ice crystals and water vapor bump into each other and collide in the cloud, they create electrical charges – which are necessary to create lightning.

The positive charges are protons and are at the top of the cloud. The negative charges are electrons and are at the bottom of the cloud. When these two charges interact with each other, lightning strikes in the cloud and from cloud to cloud.

But lightning can also strike the ground and objects on the ground. This happens through the same process. The ground and especially taller objects on it have positive charges. The bottom of the storm cloud still has negative charges. When these opposite charges interact, the same process of the lightning strike occurs.

If you have your own weather or science related question, send it to Meteorologist Carmen Rose at crose@wrbl.com and she’ll answer it on air next Wednesday.



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