Where's the Thunder? | OETA

Where's the Thunder?

Posted by Jessica Crino on
Epic lightning in Lawton, OK
Chris Martin

A while back, an astute viewer (and fellow curious cat) @vlouisep tweeted a question at us.

"@WhatsTheDealOK The last rain storm I saw close lightning but never heard the thunder, what's the Deal? I expected it to be real loud."

Well, yeah, it should have been really loud. And scary. I'd probably still be hiding under my covers waiting for the big boom. Something like what happened at this Texas Rangers game last year. Gives me the shivers just thinking about it...

Anyway, judging from your question, it seems like it's old news to you about how lightning creates thunder... (it super heats the air around it in an instant, the air rapidly expands, creating the loud BOOM that we call thunder. Find out more here.)

So why would you see the lightning, but not hear the thunder? 

There are a couple of reasons, actually. The most common reason that you would not be able to hear thunder after seeing lighting is just that the lightning happened too far away from you. In ideal conditions lightning can be seen as far as 100 miles away. Thunder, however, can only travel about 15 miles before it disperses. A lot of times when people see lightning but don't hear any thunder, they call it "heat lightning".

But @vlouisep tells us that the lightning seemed pretty close. Well, there is another option... 

From the National Lightning Safety Institute: "Thunder audibility also is influenced by humidity, wind velocity and wind sheer, temperature inversions, terrain features, clouds, etc. (Uman, 1987 and Fleagle, 1949)."

Apparently, the sound waves that make thunder can be effected by the air around us. If there is a very sharp temperature differential between where the lightning strikes and where you are, it's possible that the sound wave could be dampened or deflected before it gets to you. It's the less likely option, but it's much cooler. 

Hope that helps, @vlouisep!


Here's some more lightning and thunder facts for the road:

--The average duration of lightning is 30 microseconds

--The science of lightning is called fulminology.

-- The fear of lightning is called astraphobia.

-- Lightning heats the air to around 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

-- The place where lightning occurs most often is near the small village of Kifuka in the mountains of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Thanks Wikipedia and NSSL!