Thunderstorms produce amazing displays of awe and wonder. The power they yield is extremely dangerous but also very captivating. There are certain characteristics that we associate with these types of storms, specifically awesome presentations of thunder and lightning. These two particular events appear to go hand-in-hand during a thunderstorm.
The reason thunder and lightning seem connected is because, in fact, they are. Thunder is a direct result of a lightning strike and is essentially a shock wave produced by superheated air surrounding the bolt of electricity. This shock wave is what provides us with the familiar loud crackling and ominous, low rumblings of a thunderstorm.
To be a bit more specific, lightning is a stream of electrons that carry a negative charge. This lightning bolt can travel from cloud to cloud or from the clouds to the ground and vice versa. The mystery behind exactly how lightning forms remains up for debate though we do understand some of its basic properties.
There are two main theories that try to explain how lightning forms. One theory is called the Precipitation theory and suggests that raindrops, hail, and soft hail (graupel) of variable sizes collide with heavier particles transferring positive and negative charges between them. Convection theorists suggest that positive charges are carried from the ground to the clouds by updrafts within the storm. Downdrafts are responsible for carrying negative charges from the clouds to the ground. But there are scientists that also claim the electrical field within storms alone is not strong enough to cause lightning to occur. It is theorized that an outside source, specifically cosmic rays, are necessary in order to initiate a cascade effect that results in the discharge of electrical current.
Whatever the case may be it is known that lightning is a result of an electron current induced because of differing electric potentials at either end. To put it plainly, lightning flows between different electrical charges (positive and negative) due to the fact that opposite charges attract. As the areas of positive and negative become more defined the electrical field grows stronger. The attraction the positive and negative electrical charges feel for one another becomes so strong that they cannot stand the separation any longer and so make a mad dash for the other side. A current of electricity in the form of a lightning bolt is a visible representation of this behavior.
The bolt of lightning superheats the air surrounding it which can reach temperatures as high as 60,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more! To put it into perspective, the surface of the sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit! The result is rapid expansion and cooling of this superheated air around the lightning bolt which causes the column of air surrounding it to resonate violently producing the familiar sharp crackling that often fades into rumbling thunder.
In order to determine how far away a storm is from your present location count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the first rumble of thunder that is heard. Take that number and divide it by the number 5. This will provide you with an estimate in the number of miles you are from the storm. But be warned, storms that appear far away still pose a dangerous risk. Lightning can travel large distances. Due to their dangerous nature it is extremely important that shelter is sought during a thunderstorm. Take in the beauty of these awesome events but make sure to take the necessary precautions to avoid potential tragedy.
Despite a lack in understanding the exact reason behind the formation of lightning there is no denying that thunder and lightning are awesome spectacles to behold. Scientists continue to study their nature for many reasons in an effort to propel humanity forward whether it be to develop better ways to protect us from the harmful effects of storms or to harness their power. Thunder and lightning are wonderfully intense as well as dangerous displays of Mother Nature’s incredible beauty and awesome power.