The Myth of Heat Lightning

There are many weather myths that have been passed down by generations or spread through folklore. Some have a small amount of reality to them most do not. Often times they can be fun and just simply ways to explain weather in terms easier to understand. Though there are some that are deadly and those deal with tornado myths. I might have to break those up into a few posts at a later time. So today lets start with a common myth that is still used today. I originally wrote this last summer but it’s always worth a re-post every summer.

We’ve all heard the term “heat lightning” but what if I told you there’s no such thing? There really isn’t anything called heat lightning, it’s just a term people mistakenly give to distant thunderstorms. The term originated in the days when people use to sit on their front porch on warm summer evenings to escape the hotter house prior to A/C.

Also in an era before Doppler Radar was easily available to the public on TV, on-line and via mobile devices. People would notice lightning in the sky but they never heard thunder or saw a drop of rain and there was even at times clear skies over their heads. So they just called it heat lightning because it happens on warm summer nights. Well all lightning comes from a cumulonimbus cloud or a thundershower or thunderstorm not just heat. What happens is at night you are able to see distant thunderstorms that are so far away you can’t hear the thunder or get any of the rain. Sometimes these storms can be 30-100 miles away. You have to also remember thunderstorm tops can be between 30-60,000 feet high. These same thunderstorms are around during the day but because the sun is up you don’t see the lightning, much like you can’t see stars during the day.



( Image Credit

Here’s a good example of a distance thunderstorm which is likely 50,000’ tall. Notice you don’t hear thunder or see rain and in fact it’s clear overhead.


  • I guess the Easter Bunny and Santa aren’t real either?? LOL!! Thanks Brad, good info for the unknowing………………..

    • Kevin Bozard

      You don’t know how many times I’ve had people argue with me that heat lightning does exist, even though I explained it to them. They just don’t, or won’t believe that there is no such thing.

  • Shocktroop

    the term originates from a time when human beings used to go outside from time to time. interesting.

  • rhscnative

    Thanks very much for the edification.

  • I remember this from my younger days. You could be outside on a hot summer evening and see lightning that had no apparent source.

  • I both love and hate this. Though I am going to keep spinning the myth. 😉

  • One of the biggest ( possible myth) ive heard growing up whether true or not, is that lightening never strikes the same spot more than once.

    • Joe_Keedoke

      It can. In 1956 a house across the street got hit by lightning. In 1980, the house right next door got hit by lightning, not 15 feet away from where the bolt struck the neighbor’s house in 1956. I’d call that pretty darn close.

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  • Pingback: “Heat Lightning” Doesn’t Exist | Wx Or Not BG - Landon Hampton, Meteorologist()

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  • Ayamosam

    Heat lighting was so awesome 🙂 i mean you can’t hear any sound coming from the lighting but only flashes of light.

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  • Joe_Keedoke

    “Heat lightning” once quite common in SE Michigan hasn’t been around now for some 50 years. The phenomenon, common in the 1950’s, basically vanished by the mid 60’s. That provides my explanation for it, and what (to us) it meant. Lightning flashes after dusk, on warm still nights in Jun – Aug, persisting for hours; with no audible thunder, usually towards the horizon, but on occasion, appearing overhead, but still no thunder, no rain, and no rain or thunderstorm all night (with rare exceptions). Sometimes quite dramatic with visible fingers, other times just sheet lightning. Sometimes billowing cumuli were illuminated but not usually.

    So what happened to it? Why don’t we see it anymore?
    Well, for one thing, air pollution vanished about 1960 – 65 or so. I’m talking big time air pollution. Chimneys belching out all sorts of smoke with particulates. On a typical still day in the late ’50’s in summer especially, you couldn’t see the sky during the day in places like east Toledo, southwest Detroit, Detroit’s lower east side, and places like that. That material, suspended in the air acted like fiber optic material. “Heat lightning” in those days could be (and on occasion, watching the weather forecaster on TV, confirmed it) lightning from a thunderstorm 80 miles away. The lightning was reflected in the smoggy, particulate-laden atmosphere and carried like light through a fiber optic cable. Carried much farther than today’s clean air could ever carry it. Today, visible lightning at night will much more likely result in audible thunder at some point, or even a thunderstorm in your location. That just wasn’t the case in the old days of so-called “heat lightning.”

    Finally, in the mid-1950’s the lower levels of the Great Lakes allowed shoreline waters to get warmer than usual in summer, 82 degrees not unusual; and, as a result, there were frequent episodes of so-called “peninsula thunderstorms.” Much like what you see on the Gulf Coast, usually just after dark, sometimes persisting through most of the night. In fact, much of our visible “heat lightning” in those days was seen in the east, northeast, or southeast; i.e., due to these “peninsula storms” over the shorelines of Lakes Erie and Huron. These storms were much less common in the 60’s, and essentially absent in the 70’s. Deeper waters, consequently cooler at the surface put an end to that phenomenon, and with the clearer air, an end to the fascinating phenomenon of “heat lightning.”

    Superstition? Misinformation? Well yes…there was that too. My Mother told us kids “Quit looking at that heat lightning…you’re gonna get polio!”