Last updated
Cumulonimbus clouds often form thunderstorms. Anvil shaped cumulus panorama edit crop.jpg
Cumulonimbus clouds often form thunderstorms.

Thunder is the sound caused by lightning. [1] [2] [3] Depending upon the distance from and nature of the lightning, it can range from a long, low rumble to a sudden, loud crack. The sudden increase in temperature and hence pressure caused by the lightning produces rapid expansion of the air in the path of a lightning bolt. [4] In turn, this expansion of air creates a sonic shock wave, often referred to as a "thunderclap" or "peal of thunder". The scientific study of thunder is known as brontology and the irrational fear (phobia) of thunder is called brontophobia.



The d in Modern English thunder (from earlier Old English þunor) is epenthetic, and is now found as well in Modern Dutch donder (cf. Middle Dutch donre; also Old Norse þorr , Old Frisian þuner, Old High German donar, all ultimately descended from Proto-Germanic *þunraz). In Latin the term was tonare "to thunder". The name of the Nordic god Thor comes from the Old Norse word for thunder. [5]

The shared Proto-Indo-European root is *tón-r̥ or *tar-, also found in Gaulish Taranis . [6]


The cause of thunder has been the subject of centuries of speculation and scientific inquiry. [7] Early thinking was that it was made by deities, but the ancient Greek philosophers attributed it to natural causes, such as wind striking clouds (Anaximander, Aristotle) and movement of air within clouds (Democritus). [8] The Roman philosopher Lucretius held it was from the sound of hail colliding within clouds. [8]

In the mid 19th century, the accepted theory was that lightning produced a vacuum and that the collapse of that vacuum produced what is known as thunder. [7]

In the 20th century a consensus evolved that thunder must begin with a shock wave in the air due to the sudden thermal expansion of the plasma in the lightning channel. [9] [8] The temperature inside the lightning channel, measured by spectral analysis, varies during its 50 μs existence, rising sharply from an initial temperature of about 20,000  K to about 30,000 K, then dropping away gradually to about 10,000 K. The average is about 20,400 K (20,100 °C; 36,300 °F). [10] This heating causes a rapid outward expansion, impacting the surrounding cooler air at a speed faster than sound would otherwise travel. The resultant outward-moving pulse is a shock wave, [11] similar in principle to the shock wave formed by an explosion, or at the front of a supersonic aircraft. In close proximity to the source, the sound pressure level of thunder is usually 165180dB, but can exceed 200 dB in some cases. [12]

Experimental studies of simulated lightning have produced results largely consistent with this model, though there is continued debate about the precise physical mechanisms of the process. [13] [9] Other causes have also been proposed, relying on electrodynamic effects of the enormous current acting on the plasma in the bolt of lightning. [14]


The shock wave in thunder is sufficient to cause property damage [7] and injury, such as internal contusion, to individuals nearby. [15] Thunder can rupture the eardrums of people nearby, leading to permanently impaired hearing. [7] Even if not, it can lead to temporary deafness. [7]


Vavrek et al. (n.d.) reported that the sounds of thunder fall into categories based on loudness, duration, and pitch. [7] Claps are loud sounds lasting 0.2 to 2 seconds and containing higher pitches. Peals are sounds changing in loudness and pitch. Rolls are irregular mixtures of loudness and pitches. Rumbles are less loud, last for longer (up to more than 30 seconds), and of low pitch. [16]

Inversion thunder results when lightning strikes between cloud and ground occur during a temperature inversion; the resulting thunder sounds have significantly greater acoustic energy than from the same distance in a non-inversion condition. In an inversion, the air near the ground is cooler than the higher air; inversions often occur when warm moist air passes above a cold front. Within a temperature inversion, the sound energy is prevented from dispersing vertically as it would in a non-inversion and is thus concentrated in the near-ground layer. [17]

Thunder is the sound produced by lightning. Lightning 14.07.2009 20-42-33.JPG
Thunder is the sound produced by lightning.

Cloud-to-ground lightning (CG) typically consists of two or more return strokes, from ground to cloud. Later return strokes have greater acoustic energy than the first. [18]


The most noticeable aspect of lightning and thunder is that the lightning is seen before the thunder is heard. This is a consequence of the speed of light being much greater than the speed of sound. The speed of sound in dry air is approximately 343 m/s (1,130 ft/s) or 1,236 km (768 mi) at 20 °C (68 °F; 293 K). [19] This translates to 3 s/km (4.8 s/mi); saying "one thousand and one... one thousand and two..." is a useful method of counting the seconds from the perception of a given lightning flash to the perception of its thunder (which can be used to gauge the proximity of lightning for the sake of safety). [20]

A very bright flash of lightning and an almost simultaneous sharp "crack" of thunder, a thundercrack, therefore indicates that the lightning strike was very near.

Close-in lightning has been described first as a clicking or cloth-tearing sound, then a cannon shot sound or loud crack/snap, followed by continuous rumbling. [7] The early sounds are from the leader parts of lightning, then the near parts of the return stroke, then the distant parts of the return stroke. [7]

See also

Related Research Articles

Cumulonimbus cloud Genus of dense, towering vertical clouds

Cumulonimbus is a dense, towering vertical cloud, typically forming from water vapor condensing in the lower troposphere that builds upward carried by powerful buoyant air currents. Above the lower portions of the cumulonimbus the water vapor becomes ice crystals, such as snow and graupel, the interaction of which can lead to hail and to lightning formation, respectively. When occurring as a thunderstorm these clouds may be referred to as thunderheads. Cumulonimbus can form alone, in clusters, or along squall lines. These clouds are capable of producing lightning and other dangerous severe weather, such as tornadoes, hazardous winds, and large hailstones. Cumulonimbus progress from overdeveloped cumulus congestus clouds and may further develop as part of a supercell. Cumulonimbus is abbreviated Cb.

Inversion (meteorology) Deviation from the normal change of an atmospheric property with altitude

In meteorology, an inversion is a deviation from the normal change of an atmospheric property with altitude. It almost always refers to an inversion of the air temperature lapse rate, in which case it is called a temperature inversion. Normally, air temperature decreases with an increase in altitude, but during an inversion warmer air is held above cooler air.

Fog Atmospheric phenomenon

Fog is a visible aerosol consisting of tiny water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the air at or near the Earth's surface. Fog can be considered a type of low-lying cloud usually resembling stratus, and is heavily influenced by nearby bodies of water, topography, and wind conditions. In turn, fog affects many human activities, such as shipping, travel, and warfare.

Lightning Weather phenomenon involving electrostatic discharge

Lightning is a naturally occurring electrostatic discharge during which two electrically charged regions, both in the atmosphere or with one on the ground, temporarily neutralize themselves, causing the instantaneous release of an average of one gigajoule of energy. This discharge may produce a wide range of electromagnetic radiation, from heat created by the rapid movement of electrons, to brilliant flashes of visible light in the form of black-body radiation. Lightning causes thunder, a sound from the shock wave which develops as gases in the vicinity of the discharge experience a sudden increase in pressure. Lightning occurs commonly during thunderstorms as well as other types of energetic weather systems, but volcanic lightning can also occur during volcanic eruptions.

Thunderstorm Type of weather with lightning and thunder

A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere, known as thunder. Relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thundershowers. Thunderstorms occur in a type of cloud known as a cumulonimbus. They are usually accompanied by strong winds and often produce heavy rain and sometimes snow, sleet, or hail, but some thunderstorms produce little precipitation or no precipitation at all. Thunderstorms may line up in a series or become a rainband, known as a squall line. Strong or severe thunderstorms include some of the most dangerous weather phenomena, including large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Some of the most persistent severe thunderstorms, known as supercells, rotate as do cyclones. While most thunderstorms move with the mean wind flow through the layer of the troposphere that they occupy, vertical wind shear sometimes causes a deviation in their course at a right angle to the wind shear direction.

Storm Disturbed state of an astronomical bodys atmosphere

A storm is any disturbed state of an environment or in an astronomical body's atmosphere especially affecting its surface, and strongly implying severe weather. It may be marked by significant disruptions to normal conditions such as strong wind, tornadoes, hail, thunder and lightning, heavy precipitation, heavy freezing rain, strong winds, or wind transporting some substance through the atmosphere as in a dust storm, blizzard, sandstorm, etc.

Shock wave Propagating disturbance

In physics, a shock wave, or shock, is a type of propagating disturbance that moves faster than the local speed of sound in the medium. Like an ordinary wave, a shock wave carries energy and can propagate through a medium but is characterized by an abrupt, nearly discontinuous, change in pressure, temperature, and density of the medium.

Speed of sound Speed of sound wave through elastic medium

The speed of sound is the distance travelled per unit of time by a sound wave as it propagates through an elastic medium. At 20 °C (68 °F), the speed of sound in air is about 343 metres per second, or one kilometre in 2.9 s or one mile in 4.7 s. It depends strongly on temperature as well as the medium through which a sound wave is propagating. At 0 °C (32 °F), the speed of sound is about 331 m/s.

Sonic boom Sound created by a object going as fast as the speed of sound

A sonic boom is a sound associated with shock waves created when an object travels through the air faster than the speed of sound. Sonic booms generate enormous amounts of sound energy, sounding similar to an explosion or a thunderclap to the human ear. A decibel is the primary unit measurement of sound. "A thunderclap is incredibly loud, producing levels between 100 and 120 dBA - the equivalent of standing near a jet during take-off."

Wind shear Difference in wind speed or direction over a short distance

Wind shear, sometimes referred to as wind gradient, is a difference in wind speed and/or direction over a relatively short distance in the atmosphere. Atmospheric wind shear is normally described as either vertical or horizontal wind shear. Vertical wind shear is a change in wind speed or direction with a change in altitude. Horizontal wind shear is a change in wind speed with a change in lateral position for a given altitude.

Heat lightning Description of distant cloud to ground lightning

Heat lightning, also known as silent lightning, summer lightning, or dry lightning, is a misnomer used for the faint flashes of lightning on the horizon or other clouds from distant thunderstorms that do not appear to have accompanying sounds of thunder.

Synoptic scale meteorology 1000-km-order method of measuring weather systems

The synoptic scale in meteorology is a horizontal length scale of the order of 1000 kilometers or more. This corresponds to a horizontal scale typical of mid-latitude depressions. Most high- and low-pressure areas seen on weather maps are synoptic-scale systems, driven by the location of Rossby waves in their respective hemisphere. Low-pressure areas and their related frontal zones occur on the leading edge of a trough within the Rossby wave pattern, while high-pressure areas form on the back edge of the trough. Most precipitation areas occur near frontal zones. The word synoptic is derived from the Greek word συνοπτικός, meaning seen together.

Thermocline Thermal layer in a body of water

A thermocline is a thin but distinct layer in a large body of fluid in which temperature changes more drastically with depth than it does in the layers above or below. In the ocean, the thermocline divides the upper mixed layer from the calm deep water below.

June Gloom Weather phenomenon where clouds develop and temperatures cool over coastal California

June Gloom is a California term for a weather pattern that results in cloudy, overcast skies with cool temperatures during the late spring and early summer. While it is most common in the month of June, it can occur in surrounding months, giving rise to other colloquialisms, such as "May Gray", "No-Sky July", and "Fogust". Low-altitude stratus clouds form over the cool water of the California Current, and spread overnight into the coastal regions of California.

Index of meteorology articles

This is a list of meteorology topics. The terms relate to meteorology, the interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere that focuses on weather processes and forecasting.

Lightning strike Electric discharge between the atmosphere and the ground

A lightning strike or lightning bolt is an electric discharge between the atmosphere and the ground. Most originate in a cumulonimbus cloud and terminate on the ground, called cloud-to-ground (CG) lightning. A less common type of strike, ground-to-cloud (GC) lightning, is upward-propagating lightning initiated from a tall grounded object and reaching into the clouds. About 69% of all lightning events worldwide are strikes between the atmosphere and earth-bound objects. Most are intracloud (IC) lightning and cloud-to-cloud (CC), where discharges only occur high in the atmosphere. Lightning strikes the average commercial aircraft at least once a year, but modern engineering and design means this is rarely a problem. The movement of aircraft through clouds can even cause lightning strikes.

Lightning detection Remote observation of lightning strikes

A lightning detector is a device that detects lightning produced by thunderstorms. There are three primary types of detectors: ground-based systems using multiple antennas, mobile systems using a direction and a sense antenna in the same location, and space-based systems.

Shortwave (meteorology) Embedded kink in the trough / ridge pattern

A shortwave or shortwave trough is an embedded kink in the trough / ridge pattern. Its length scale is much smaller than that of and is embedded within longwaves, which are responsible for the largest scale weather systems. Shortwaves may be contained within or found ahead of longwaves and range from the mesoscale to the synoptic scale. Shortwaves are most frequently caused by either a cold pool or an upper level front. Shortwaves are commonly referred to as a vorticity maximum.

Outline of meteorology Overview of and topical guide to meteorology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the field of Meteorology.

Glossary of meteorology List of definitions of terms and concepts commonly used in meteorology

This glossary of meteorology is a list of terms and concepts relevant to meteorology and atmospheric science, their sub-disciplines, and related fields.


  1. "Severe Weather 101: Lightning Basics". Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  2. "Thunder Facts". Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  3. "The Sound of Thunder". Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  4. "What Causes Lightning and Thunder?". NOAA. 2022.
  5. "thunder". Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989.
  6. Matasovic, Ranko. Etymological Dictionary Of Proto Celtic. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. 2009. p. 384. ISBN   978-90-04-17336-1
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Vavrek, R. J., Kithil, R., Holle, R. L., Allsopp, J., & Cooper, M. A. (n.d.). The science of thunder. Retrieved from
  8. 1 2 3 Heidorn, K. C. (1999). Thunder: Voice of the heavens. Retrieved from
  9. 1 2 Rakov, Vladimir A.; Uman, Martin A. (2007). Lightning: Physics and Effects. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 378. ISBN   978-0-521-03541-5.,
  10. Cooray, Vernon (2003). The lightning flash . London: Institution of Electrical Engineers. pp.  163–164. ISBN   978-0-85296-780-5.
  11. "Thunder". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2008-06-07. Retrieved 2008-09-12.
  12. "Ultimate Sound Pressure Level Decibel Table" . Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  13. MacGorman, Donald R.; Rust, W. David (1998). The Electrical Nature of Storms. Oxford University Press. pp. 102–104. ISBN   978-0195073379. Archived from the original on 2014-06-28. Retrieved 2012-09-06.
  14. P Graneau (1989). "The cause of thunder". J. Phys. D: Appl. Phys. 22 (8): 1083–1094. Bibcode:1989JPhD...22.1083G. doi:10.1088/0022-3727/22/8/012. S2CID   250836715.
  15. Fish, Raymond M (2021). "Thermal and mechanical shock wave injury". In Nabours, Robert E (ed.). Electrical injuries: engineering, medical, and legal aspects. Tucson, AZ: Lawyers & Judges Publishing. p.  220. ISBN   978-1-930056-71-8.
  16. "Thunder Facts". Fast Facts for Kids. 2022.
  17. Dean A. Pollet and Micheal M. Kordich (2013-04-08). "User's guide for the Sound Intensity Prediction System (SIPS) as installed at the Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division (Naveodtechdiv)" (PDF). Systems Department February 2000. Archived from the original on April 8, 2013.
  18. "Lightning Types". NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory. 2022.
  19. Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 72nd edition, special student edition. Boca Raton: The Chemical Rubber Co. 1991. p. 14.36. ISBN   978-0-8493-0486-6.
  20. "Understanding Lightning: Thunder". National Weather Service. 2022.