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How to Find the Distance to Thunderstorms and Fireworks

Learn some fun facts about fireworks and thunderstorms, and find out how you can use math to quickly and easily estimate how far away they are from you. 

By
Jason Marshall, PhD
June 29, 2012
Episode #111

Page 1 of 3

fireworksWhat do fireworks and thunderstorms have in common? Actually, a lot of things. First of all, with the 4th of July holiday just around the corner and the summer thunderstorm season in full swing, they’re both things that a lot of us here in the United States can expect to see in the next week. But most importantly for us today, they’re also both things that make noise…a lot of it. While loud noises are usually just annoying, in the case of fireworks and thunderstorms they’re actually useful. How? You can use them to figure out the distance to those spectacular fireworks explosions and lightning strikes. In the case of lightning, that’s not just useful—it could actually save your life! So let’s figure out how it works.

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Fun Facts About Fireworks

Before we start calculating distances to fireworks and thunderstorms, let’s look at some fun math facts about these two visual and audible wonders. Given that 4th of July celebrations are coming up in the U.S., let’s start with fireworks. Perhaps the most amazing fact about fireworks is that although they seem high-tech, they’re really quite ancient. Well, at least the idea behind them is ancient. In truth, modern fireworks use lots of sophisticated technology in their construction, but at their heart is a design that was developed over 1,000 years ago in China. 

The fireworks used for big modern displays are shot out of launch tubes (think of little cannons pointed up) at almost 200 miles per hour to a height of nearly 1,000 feet. The clever folks who build these fireworks use lots of precise math and physics (which you can read about here) to make sure the timing works out perfectly so that each firework reaches its peak just as it bursts into a spectacular display of brilliant light and thunderous sound. And speaking of thunder…

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