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What is a Thunderstorm?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A thunderstorm is a storm that is accompanied with lightning and thunder, along with heavy rainfall or hail. Typically, these storms are relatively brief, resolving themselves within a few hours, but they can do a great deal of damage, especially in the case of supercells, massive thunderstorms that can pack a serious punch. Because of the potential danger, people are usually advised to stay indoors during such storms, and severe weather warnings may be issued to put emergency services on alert if a thunderstorm looks extremely dangerous.

In order for a thunderstorm to form, warm moist air must be present near the surface of the Earth. Because warm air is lighter than cool air, it rises up into the atmosphere. If the higher air is cooler, the moist air starts to condense, forming clouds. When conditions in the atmosphere are unstable, those clouds can turn into towering cumulonimbus, with a classic anvil shape. Eventually, the clouds release their moisture, generating a torrent of rain or hail in very cold conditions.

The unstable conditions also generate electrical charges that become lightning. As the lightning strikes, it generates thunder, which is caused by the superheated air generated by lightning as it streaks through the atmosphere. As this air expands, it forms a shock wave, which registers as thunder in human ears.

In a single cell thunderstorm, there is only one major source of warm, moist air, and the storm typically ends quickly because it essentially runs out of ammunition. Multi-cell storms have multiple sources, and many form up into a cell cluster or squall line, a series of storms that hammer an area repeatedly until all of the storms pass over. In the case of a supercell, the cloud actually breaks up through the troposphere, and the resulting storm has tremendous energy, which can in turn create hurricanes and tornadoes.

Thunderstorms are most common in the tropics, where warm, moist air abounds, and in some regions, small ones occur almost every day. These storms can potentially occur anywhere, however, even in the frigid arctic, and it is not always possible to predict them. Often, weather conditions suggest that a thunderstorm may be likely, and meteorologists can alert people to the danger, but in other cases, one seems to come out of nowhere, and to dissipate just as unexpectedly. As a general rule, anvil-shaped clouds, a heavy sky, and a feeling of tension are all good reasons to go indoors for a bit in case a serious storm develops.

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes a thunderstorm to occur?

Thunderstorms are caused by the rapid upward movement of warm, moist air. As this air rises, it cools and condenses to form clouds and eventually precipitation. The energy from the rising air can create strong winds, lightning, and thunder. The clashing of warm air with cooler atmospheric layers is the primary driver behind these powerful storms.

How does lightning form within a thunderstorm?

Lightning forms in a thunderstorm when the electrical charge within a cloud becomes separated, with positive charges typically at the top and negative charges at the bottom. This separation creates an electric potential both within the cloud and between the cloud and the ground. When the potential becomes too great, a discharge occurs as lightning, equalizing the charge.

What is the difference between a severe thunderstorm and a regular thunderstorm?

A severe thunderstorm is one that contains one or more of the following: hail one inch in diameter or larger, winds gusting in excess of 58 miles per hour, or a tornado. Regular thunderstorms may still have lightning and thunder but lack the intensity of severe weather phenomena that define a severe thunderstorm.

Can thunderstorms be predicted?

Yes, meteorologists can predict thunderstorms by analyzing weather data and atmospheric conditions. They use tools like radar, satellite imagery, and computer models to forecast where and when thunderstorms are likely to occur. While predictions have improved, the localized nature of thunderstorms can still make them somewhat unpredictable and sudden.

What safety precautions should be taken during a thunderstorm?

During a thunderstorm, it's crucial to seek shelter immediately, preferably inside a sturdy building. Stay away from windows, avoid using electrical appliances, and do not bathe or shower as plumbing can conduct electricity. If you're caught outside, avoid high ground, isolated trees, and water. It's also wise to have a battery-operated weather radio for updates.

How long does a typical thunderstorm last?

A typical thunderstorm lasts about 30 minutes, though the entire life cycle of a thunderstorm—from the initial development of clouds to the final dissipation—can span several hours. Some severe thunderstorms, particularly those that form in organized clusters or lines, can last much longer and affect larger areas.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon343883 — On Aug 03, 2013

I live in an area where we don't get many thunderstorms, but they still scare me out of my skin. What I do is I usually listen to the song Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. It has thundering noises, so it blocks out the sound of the thunder. I listen to it for the whole storm, and I don't hear a thing.

By Mykol — On Apr 29, 2012

@SarahSon - Lightning is what scares me too. If I see it way off in the distance, it doesn't bother me so much, but when it is close, I like to stay far away from it.

When I was a kid I was always afraid of a thunderstorm and if they came in the middle of the night, I would not be able to sleep.

My mom always said the sound of the thunder was the angels in heaven bowling, and the lightning flashed whenever they got a strike.

To this day, I always think of that when I am in the middle of a thunderstorm. A few years ago we had a really bad one with a lot of hail damage. Within just a few minutes many crops, cars and homes were damaged from the hail that came with the storm.

I also had some neighbors who lost the roof of their barn because of high winds from a thunderstorm. This wasn't a tornado, but the winds were strong enough to cause a lot of damage.

By SarahSon — On Apr 28, 2012

@julies - I also live in an area where we get frequent thunderstorms. I thought this was something that was common all across the country, but this is not the case.

When a friend of mine from the West coast was going to college here, this was the first time she had been in a thunderstorm.

She said they never had them where she lived. They would get rain, but didn't have the thunder and lightning that you get with a thunderstorm.

I was intrigued by this and had never thought about it before. I don't mind the rain and the thunder, but a thunderstorm with lightning can scare me.

I have seen the lightning get pretty close before, and some times when I go outside after the storm has passed, I can see where the lightning struck a tree.

Personally, that is a little too close for comfort.

By julies — On Apr 27, 2012

I have lived in the Midwest my whole life so I am used to summer thunderstorms. I enjoy some of them, as long as they don't turn into a severe thunderstorm.

I have a covered porch where I love to sit outside and watch the lightning flash across the sky, listen to the thunder and hear the rain fall.

I find the sights, sounds and even the smell of the rain during a thunderstorm to be exciting and yet soothing at the same time.

When the storm turns severe is when I don't enjoy them and make sure I stay inside the house. If there are strong winds that accompany the storm, they can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time.

I like the thunderstorms when you can hear the gentle rolls of the thunder and you get a nice, gentle rain with it.

By myharley — On Apr 27, 2012

I have had several dogs that can predict a thunderstorm is coming before I can. This is something that seems to bother them more the older they get.

They become agitated and nervous hours before the storm even arrives. One of my dogs would dig a hole under a shed and crawl under there during a thunderstorm.

My golden retriever, who never jumped up on the furniture, would try to jump up on my lap during a thunderstorm and sometimes she would be shaking.

I was always curious why the storms bothered them so much and how they knew they were coming. I think they must be able to sense a change in the atmospheric pressure somehow.

Many times the thunderstorm sounds of loud thunder will cause one of my dogs to howl, while the kids sleep right through it all.

By Perdido — On Apr 26, 2012

I have heard that thunderstorms scare dogs because the charge causes static in their coat. I don't know if this is true or not, but for whatever reason, my normally fearless Doberman quivers during a thunderstorm, and she hides in the closet under my clothes.

I really think it may have more to do with the loud noises and the shaking of the house than with static. After all, she has extremely short hair, and I can't see it standing up at all.

I feel really bad for her, because there is nothing I can do to comfort her. I can't get her to come out of the closet!

By StarJo — On Apr 26, 2012

Some of my friends only fear the thunderstorms producing tornados, but I fear them all. I have hated the loud boom and crack ever since I was little, and if hail comes with it, then I shake all over in fear.

There was a thunderstorm that produced golf ball size hail at my house a few years ago. It was coming down on the tin roof so hard that I couldn't hear the person standing right next to me talk. Paralyzed by fear, I just stood at the window and watched the hail bounce off the lawn.

Since it came in July, there was quite a big temperature difference between the ground and the hail. Once it had quit falling, we went outside, and steam was rising off of our newly white lawn. The grass was covered, as though it had snowed balls.

Though it had terrified me as it was happening, it was pretty cool to look at after the storm had passed. The whole thing was over in probably one minute.

By kylee07drg — On Apr 25, 2012

@lighth0se33 – Thunderstorms make the hair on my body stand up sometimes. I wonder how our grandparents must have felt when they saw a storm coming. They had no radar or warnings to rely on, so the sound of a thunderstorm must have been a lot scarier to them.

My mother told me that every time they heard thunder, her parents would take the family into the storm cellar. This does seem a bit excessive by modern standards, but when you think about it, they had no way of knowing if they were in danger of getting hit by a tornado or hail. They just had to take every precaution.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 24, 2012

It is weird how you can feel the electricity in the air when a thunderstorm is approaching. I always get a feeling of danger and uneasiness, and I want to get indoors as quickly as possible. My yard has received a lightning strike before, and I know the damage that it can do.

I have a shop in my backyard with a concrete floor. Lightning hit the antenna on top of the shop and traveled down to the foundation, where it split the concrete. That is some impressive power.

This has motivated me to stay out of the shop during thunderstorms. I feel much safer in my brick house.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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