Thunderbolts & Lightning…very very frightening?

Thunderstorms – An Introduction

Continuing on our weather theme from last week, we’re looking at Thunder & Lightning today.

A thunderstorm can be described as one or more sudden electrical discharges, manifested by a flash of light (lightning) and a sharp or rumbling sound (thunder). Thunderstorms are associated with convective clouds and are most often, but not necessarily, accompanied by precipitation at the ground.


Cumulonimbus clouds (Latin: cumulus – heap; nimbus – rainy cloud)

A cumulonimbus ‘cloud factory’ (© J. Corey).

Not all cumulonimbus clouds bring thunderstorms; some just bring heavy showers or hail. On average, an individual cumulonimbus cloud takes only one hour to take shape, grow and dissipate. It produces less than 30 minutes of thunder and lightning. If a thunderstorm lasts longer than this, it is probably because there is more than one cumulonimbus present.

Electrical charges within a cumulonimbus cloud

Lightning is a large electrical spark caused by electrons moving from one place to another

Lightning seen over Iowa (© M. Clark).

Electrons are fundamental sub-atomic particles that carry a negative electric charge. They are so small they cannot be seen, but when lightning flashes they are moving so fast that the air around them glows. The actual streak of lightning is the path the electrons follow when they move.

Water droplets form inside a storm cloud. They are propelled towards the top of the cloud by strong internal winds (updraughts), where they turn to ice. Some of the pieces of ice grow large into hail, but others remain very small. As the pieces of hail get larger, they fall back through the cloud, bumping into smaller ice particles that are still being forced upwards. When the ice particles collide, some electrons are transferred to the hail. The electrons give the hail a negative charge, while the ice particles that have lost electrons gain a positive charge.

The winds continue to carry the ice particles upwards, giving the top of the cloud a positive charge. Some of the hail has now grown so heavy that the winds can no longer propel them upwards and so collect in the lower part of the cloud, giving it a negative charge. As well as being attracted to the positive atoms in the top of the cloud, the atoms are attracted to positive atoms in other clouds and on the ground. If the attraction is strong enough, the electrons will move towards the positive atoms. The path they make in doing so is the flash of lightning.

As negative charges collect at the base of the cloud, they repel the electrons near the ground’s surface. This leaves the ground and the objects on it with a positive charge. As the attraction between the cloud and the ground grows stronger, electrons shoot down from the cloud. The electrons move in a path that spreads in different directions — like a river delta. Each step is approximately 50 metres long and the branching path is called a stepped leader. Further electrons follow, making new branches. The average speed at which the stepped leader cuts through the air is about 270,000 miles per hour.

Types of lightning

There are several types of lightning, these are:

• Ball lightning — a rare form of lightning in which a persistent and moving luminous white or coloured sphere is seen.

• Rocket lightning — a very rare and unexplained form of lightning in which the speed of propagation of the lightning stroke is slow enough to be perceptible to the eye.

• Pearl-necklace lightning — a rare form of lightning, also termed ‘chain lightning’ or ‘beaded lightning’, in which variations of brightness along the discharge path give rise to a momentary appearance similar to pearls on a string.

• Ribbon lightning — ordinary cloud-to-ground lightning that appears to be spread horizontally into a ribbon of parallel luminous streaks when a very strong wind is blowing at right angles to the observer’s line of sight.

• Forked lightning — lightning in which many luminous branches from the main discharge channel are visible.

• Sheet lightning — the popular name applied to a ‘cloud discharge’ form of lightning in which the emitted light appears diffuse and there is an apparent absence of a main channel because of the obscuring effect of the cloud.

• Streak lightning — lightning discharge which has a distinct main channel, often tortuous and branching, the discharge may be from cloud to ground or from cloud to air.

Forked lightning (© M.J.O. Dutton).


The word ‘thunder’ is derived from ‘Thor’, the Norse god of thunder. He was supposed to be a red-bearded man of tremendous strength; his greatest attribute being the ability to forge thunderbolts. The word Thursday is also derived from his name.

Thunder is the sharp or rumbling sound that accompanies lightning. It is caused by the intense heating and expansion of the air along the path of the lightning. The rumble of thunder is caused by the noise passing through layers of the atmosphere at different temperatures. Thunder lasts longer than lightning because of the time it takes for the sound to travel from different parts of the flash.

How far away is a thunderstorm?

This can roughly be estimated by measuring the interval between the lightning flash and the start of the thunder. If you count the time in seconds and then divide by three, you will have the approximate distance in kilometres. Thunder is rarely heard at a distance of more than 20 km.

Are thunderstorms dangerous?

Most people are frightened by the crackles and rumbles of thunder rather than the flash of lightning. However, thunder cannot hurt anybody, and the risk of being struck by lightning is far less than that of being killed in a car crash. Ninety per cent of lightning discharges go from cloud to cloud or between parts of the same cloud, never actually reaching the Earth. Most of the discharges that do strike the ground cause little or no damage or harm. Lightning takes the shortest and quickest route to the ground, usually via a high object standing alone.

How common are thunderstorms?

Thunderstorms occur throughout the world, even in polar regions, with the greatest frequency in tropical rainforest areas, where they may occur nearly daily. The most thundery part of the earth is the island of Java where the annual frequency of thunderstorms is about 220 days per year. In temperate regions, they are most frequent in spring and summer, although they can occur in cold fronts at any time of year. Thunderstorms are rare in polar regions due to the cold climate and stable air masses that are generally in place, but they do occur from time to time, mainly in the summer months. In recent years, thunderstorms have taken on the role of a curiosity. Every spring, storm chasers head to the Great Plains of the United States and the Canadian Prairies to explore the visual and scientific aspects of storms and tornadoes.

In the United Kingdom thunder is a variable element, the highest and lowest annual totals of thunderstorm days at many individual stations ranges from less than 5 in a quiet year to 20 or more in an active one. One consequence of this is that published maps showing the average frequency of days of thunder differ considerably in detail according to the period of records used. They agree, however, in showing that the average annual frequency is less than 5 days in western coastal districts and over most of central and northern Scotland, and 15 to 20 days over the east Midlands and parts of southeast England. There is relatively little seasonal variation on the western seaboard but elsewhere summer is the most thundery season.
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Posted on November 9, 2012, in Useful Information and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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