Ask Ellen: FAQ about severe summer weather

Ask Ellen

A ReportIt photo submitted by Nancy Ply shows lightning during the Aug. 28, 2020, storm over Jamestown Township.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Each season West Michigan can get some wild weather thrown its way. In summer, we have to keep an eye out for severe weather.

We’ve all heard some myths about summer weather. Here are explanations of the truth:

IS HEAT LIGHTNING REAL LIGHTNING?

When I was little, I learned that heat lightning was just lightning produced high in the clouds by hot air and that it could not hurt you. While there is some truth to this, the basis of it is not true. 

What many call heat lightning is just lightning from a storm that is so far away that the sound of the thunder fades before it reaches you. Any time there is a bolt of lightning, it will produce thunder. It is scientifically impossible for a bolt of lightning, which is five times hotter than the sun, to not produce thunder. Thunder is the sound of air around the lightning bolt rapidly heating up and expanding. 

Light travels much, much faster than sound. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second. This means you can see lightning pretty much the moment it happens. Sound, on the other hand, only travels at 1,088 feet per second, which is why there is a delay from seeing lightning to hearing thunder. 

Thunderstorms can be tens of thousands of feet high. If there is nothing obscuring your view on the horizon, storms can often be viewed from 100 miles away. Thunder, on the other hand, can only be heard about 10 to 15 miles away from a storm. 

If you see a lightning bolt or flash in the distance but don’t hear any thunder, it just means the storm is between 15 and 100 miles away from you. 

The idea for ‘heat lightning’ likely came from the fact that storms producing a lot of lightning followed hot days or occurred on hot nights. Heat can help to trigger storms, so the fact that heat is involved is partially true. 

WILL RUBBER SHOES OR CAR TIES PROTECT YOU FROM LIGHTNING?

The rumor that rubber can protect you from a lightning strike current is a complete lie.

Rubber will not insulate you from a lightning strike at all. If you are outside wearing shoes with rubber and a lightning bolt strikes the ground next to you, there is still a high chance a portion of the bolt will electrocute you. 

As for cars, it isn’t the rubber in the tires that protects the person inside from a lightning strike. Instead, it is the Faraday effect. This effect means that the lightning bolt is likely to travel around the metal cage of a car and down into the ground instead of inside the car, because it is the easiest path for the bolt of lightning to take. 

This is why it is important to stay inside a metal topped car if you are in a thunderstorm, if you can’t get inside a solid structure. 

SHOULD I OPEN MY WINDOWS IF A TORNADO IS COMING TO EQUALIZE PRESSURE?

If a tornado is coming, one of the last things you want to do is waste time by opening up windows and doors.

The rumor had it that a tornado was an area of such low pressure that if it hit your house the pressure difference inside, your home would cause the walls and roof to explode. 

This has been proven untrue. While tornadoes are intense areas of low pressure, opening the windows or doors will not do any good. In fact, it could make your home more susceptible to damage by allowing an easier entry for wind. And if your home takes a direct hit by a tornado, it will likely smash the windows open anyway. 

Occasionally, high wind events and tornadoes have caused walls to be blown out. Often, this was due to the homeowner leaving their garage door open, or due to the home having subpar craftmanship.

That was the case in Jenison a few years ago when a garage door was blown completely out due to fast winds. 

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