Southern Aurora Borealis

Heat lightning by Charlie J from his Flickr Photostream and used under Creative Commons license.In the pantheon of great night-sky spectacles, you’re sure to find meteor showers, lunar eclipses, the Aurora Borealis, mysterious fireballs, and the uncommon comet. Lattices of lightning make my list too, but there’s one conspicuous absence, absent possibly because this show clings to the horizon and many miss it. Out of sight, out of mind as they say.

One of the unsung joys of summer is a star-filled evening softly underlain by heat lightning. It’s a surprising phenomenon. The night sky is clear, not a hint of storms anywhere, but just along the horizon incandescent orange, purple, blue, and yellow gases overlie each other and glow like electrified watercolors. Mesmerized, you stare. The wind stirs, and you hear? Nothing, just cicadas, crickets, and a distant, lonely whippoorwill.

Not one peal of thunder.

Heat lightning … it’s one of my favorite things in the summer. Truly mystifying. Clear skies and yet something that looks very much like gasified lighting imbues evenings with a rarified air. How many evenings has heat lightning provided a spectacle I long remember. It’s like watching a war from afar. Artillery rounds light up the sky. No it’s more like watching a giant Fourth of July fireworks filtered and softened by night air. The concussions never arrive though.

I remember hearing the words “heat lightning” as a child. Why call it heat lightning? I suppose it’s because we see it most often on sultry summer nights. As a boy how many nights did I marvel at that magical display of power. I still do. It brings to mind Genesis. Surely heat lightning engulfed the world as Earth was being created.

When I was young and didn’t know better I thought heat lightning was, in fact, a rare form of storm … a strange static electricity borne of hot air. And it was puzzling this silent flickering. No clouds and no lightning bolts were involved, or so I thought. This mesmerizing light display, which isn’t celestial, comes to us courtesy of a meteorological phenomenon, and later I discovered that clouds and splintering forks of lightning are, in fact, essential to the phenomenon we call heat lightning.

One thing that makes heat lightning so magical is you never hear thunder. There’s a reason for that. Thunder seldom travels more than ten miles and yet a hazy summer evening sky can reflect the light from thunderstorms 100 miles away. The heat lightning I’ll watch in the west tonight could be reflections of a storm dropping much-needed rain onto Lincoln County, or the heat lightning you see in the east could be cast-back light from a storm passing directly over Columbia, South Carolina.

Though it occurs in most regions, I like to think of heat lightning as the down-South version of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. I’ve seen the Northern Lights, a curtain-like display of pale green light akin to a dying firefly’s last blink. Relying on my limited experience heat lightning is more colorful than the Aurora Borealis and its lofty solar-wind origins.

The heat lightning we see at night gets its start in afternoon humidity. Somewhere in the region heat and moisture brew up anvil-topped cumulonimbus clouds, those towering four-mile high storms. (No wonder we can see the reflections of their lightning bolts so far away.) Clouds amass. The wind builds and the sky’s disposition changes. A “cloud is coming up” as my Grandmother Poland, a woman of few words, used to say. And not always a cloud but sometimes a front that brings thunderous storms into the evening and through the night. Electric-blue bolts split the night and images of the great arcs of light bounce off distant clouds betraying the storm’s presence and giving viewers a grand show, the Southern Lights.

To best appreciate heat lightning you need a commanding view of the horizon. The city won’t do unless you’re high over the clutter of buildings that choke off views of the horizon. No, a front porch that looks over a large field is better as is sitting on the dock of the lake or driving through low-lying country in the evening. There on the horizon: a spectacle of nature. You drive and drive but never close the distance on it.

How well I recall the heat lightning up in North Carolina many years ago as I drove back from Raleigh on U.S. Highway 1. I remember few things from this 1991 trip with two blondes, each a beauty. No, my reminiscing retrieves images of heat lightning bubbling along the horizon as if someone had dumped red, blue, and purple dyes into a cauldron of boiling water.

When I watch heat lightning I do so for long periods. The absence of thunder and rain make it an event, Mother Nature’s muted fireworks. I watch and say nothing but I think. Suddenly I feel powerful and creative because heat lightning wakes up some slumbering part of the intellect. Heat lightning is evening drama on a grand scale. Heat lightning inspires. And if you’re wondering if this weather phenomenon has made its way into literature, the answer is how could it not.

“I used to lie in my bed by the open window, watching the heat lightning play softly along the horizon, or looking up at the gaunt frame of the windmill against the blue night sky.” Willa Cather wrote that in My Antonia. And how about this line from The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by the incomparable Mark Twain. “Towards night it begun to darken up and look like rain; the heat lightning was squirting around low down in the sky, and the leaves was beginning to shiver.”

Virginia-born Willa Cather grew up in Nebraska and Mark Twain trod Missouri soil and I’m sure they saw heat lightning aplenty. It’s too bad they didn’t live in the South though. I like to think that the heat lightning is more beautiful down here. It’s more beautiful because it’s here and because we view it from unparalleled southern vistas.

It’s nighttime pageantry kids should appreciate. And it’s a time for setting their young imaginations afire. When storms march through some distant locale, gather the kids and grandkids on the porch and have them make up stories that involve the shimmering lights. There on the horizon could unidentified flying objects be hiding within a veil of energy? Why not. Looking at those flickering colors, some as pale as black-light jellyfish makes you believe that time warps, alien spacecraft, and great electric plasmas are not just possible but probable.

The next time the weather wizards predict an evening of storms not quite in your vicinity, dedicate the evening to heat lightning. Pour yourself a glass of sweet tea, with lemon of course. Forget the TV. Settle in a comfortable rocker and turn your cell phone off. As storms break across Georgialina take great delight in the Southern Lights. It’s one of nature’s grand spectacles … a reality show you don’t want to miss

Photo: Heat lightning by Charlie J from his Flickr Photostream and used under Creative Commons license.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at Email me at [email protected]