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What Are Thunderstorms? - Definition, Types & Formation

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  • 0:05 What Are Thunderstorms?
  • 1:16 The Formation of a…
  • 2:58 Thunder and Lightning
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Thunderstorms are common all over the world. In this video lesson, you will learn what they are, how they form and how they create thunder and lightning.

What Are Thunderstorms?

Did you know that Florida has more thunderstorms per year than any other state in the U.S.? Or that if you are male you are 4.6 times more likely to get struck by lightning than if you are female? Or that sound travels one mile in five seconds, so if you hear a lightning strike you can figure out how far away it was by counting the seconds until you hear the thunder clap?

Thunderstorms are amazing and interesting events! Thunderstorms can occur almost anywhere and are the beginnings of some other dangerous storms like hurricanes and tornadoes. But just what is a thunderstorm, and how does it form? A thunderstorm is a storm with lightning and thunder. They are caused by an updraft, which occurs when warm, moist air rises vertically into the atmosphere. The updraft creates a cumulus cloud, which will eventually be the thunderstorm cloud.

Updrafts can occur anywhere warm, wet air rises quickly, which is why most people, no matter where they live, have experienced a thunderstorm at some point in their life. However, some places, like Florida, are more prone to thunderstorms because the conditions that create thunderstorms are more common.

The Formation of a Thunderstorm

A warm updraft is just the beginning of a thunderstorm, though. Once the air rises into the atmosphere, it begins to cool. Cool air can't hold as much water as warm air, so as the air cools, the water in the air gets kicked out as condensation and may eventually fall back to the ground as rain. In order for this to happen, though, the cumulus cloud has to grow very tall.

Think about it this way: If you're playing a game of Red Rover and try to break through the human wall on the other side by yourself, you may not be very successful because there's only one of you. But if you get all of your friends to crash into that line of people with you, you'll have greater success because you are a large group with a greater force.

The same is true for water in the thunderstorm cloud. By itself, that single water droplet is not heavy enough to fall back to the ground as rain. But if the cloud is tall enough, that one little droplet will pick up other droplets with it and eventually grow into a large enough water droplet to break through and fall back to Earth.

Just like the updraft was warm air rising upward into the atmosphere, a downdraft is cool air sinking back to the ground. Downdrafts are created by the falling water droplets because they don't just drag other water down with them as they fall, they drag cooler air down with them as well. The combined warm updraft and cool downdraft create a storm cell. As the process of warm air rising and cool air sinking continues, the cloud grows vertically into the shape of an anvil, which is called an anvil head cloud. This is now a full-fledged thunderstorm cloud, ready to storm away!

Thunder and Lightning

As you are probably aware, thunderstorm clouds can produce a lot of thunder and lightning. What you may not know is that these are both produced from the same event. Lightning is what you see, thunder is what you hear. They appear not to occur at the same time because light travels faster than sound, so the image of the lightning reaches your eyes before the sound it creates reaches your ears.

Here's how it works: As the water droplets in the cloud fall downward, they bump into each other, which gives the cloud an electrical charge. The charge, however, is not uniform within the cloud; there is a negative charge in the warm areas and a positive charge in the cool areas. Eventually electricity builds up and electrical energy is released, flowing to the points of opposite charge because opposites attract! Much of this occurs within the cloud, but sometimes it leaves the cloud and heads toward the ground because the ground holds an opposite charge to the lower part of the cloud. When this happens, we get lightning.

If you've ever touched a light bulb that has been on for a while, you know that light produces a lot of energy as heat. When the electrical energy leaves the cloud as lightning, it also releases energy as heat, which warms the air around it. When things heat up, they expand, and as the air expands, it releases a giant sonic boom - the thunder you hear. So you can see that while you may have lightning without thunder, you certainly won't get thunder without a lightning strike.

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