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Weather Talk: Heat lightning is just far-away lightning

Most of us have seen those mysterious, silent flashes of light from an almost indeterminate direction, seen only at night. Most people call it heat lightning, but there really is no such thing. That is to say, what we call heat lightning is not actually a different sort of lightning. Rather, flashes of regular lightning are reflected off clouds at night to give us those eerie, silent flashes. It is soundless because it comes from so far away that the sound waves are dampened before reaching our ears.

The light from lightning is a more efficient traveller than sound, and sometimes it bounces off clouds and travels great distances, often well over 50 miles, before reaching our eyes.

This so-called heat lightning is never seen in daylight because sunlight outshines it. But when the clouds are lined up just right, we see the quiet flash of lightning many miles away.

John Wheeler

John was born in Baton Rouge, LA, and grew up near Birmingham, Alabama. As a teenager, his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and later to a small town in northeast Iowa. John traces his early interest in weather to the difference in climate between Alabama and Wisconsin. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a degree in meteorology. Like any meteorologist, John is intrigued by extremes of weather, especially arctic air outbreaks and winter storms.  John has been known to say he prefers his summers to be hot but in winter, he prefers the cold.  When away from work, John enjoys long-distance running and reading.  John has been a meteorologist at WDAY since May of 1985.

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