Last updated
Lightning Pritzerbe 01 (MK).jpg
A thunderstorm near Havelsee, Germany
Area of occurrencePrimarily tropical and also temperate regions.
SeasonMost common in spring and summer.
EffectDepends on the storm, may involve rain, hail, and/or high winds. May cause flooding or fires.
A typical thunderstorm over a field FoggDam-NT.jpg
A typical thunderstorm over a field

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. [1] Relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thundershowers. [2] 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 any 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.

Lightning Atmospheric discharge of electricity

Lightning is a violent and sudden electrostatic discharge where two electrically charged regions in the atmosphere temporarily equalize themselves, usually during a thunderstorm.

Acoustics science that deals with the study of all mechanical waves in gases, liquids, and solids including vibration, sound, ultrasound and infrasound

Acoustics is the branch of physics that deals with the study of all mechanical waves in gases, liquids, and solids including topics such as vibration, sound, ultrasound and infrasound. A scientist who works in the field of acoustics is an acoustician while someone working in the field of acoustics technology may be called an acoustical engineer. The application of acoustics is present in almost all aspects of modern society with the most obvious being the audio and noise control industries.


Thunderstorms result from the rapid upward movement of warm, moist air, sometimes along a front. As the warm, moist air moves upward, it cools, condenses, and forms a cumulonimbus cloud that can reach heights of over 20 kilometres (12 mi). As the rising air reaches its dew point temperature, water vapor condenses into water droplets or ice, reducing pressure locally within the thunderstorm cell. Any precipitation falls the long distance through the clouds towards the Earth's surface. As the droplets fall, they collide with other droplets and become larger. The falling droplets create a downdraft as it pulls cold air with it, and this cold air spreads out at the Earth's surface, occasionally causing strong winds that are commonly associated with thunderstorms.

Weather front boundary separating two masses of air of different densities

A weather front is a boundary separating two masses of air of different densities, and is the principal cause of meteorological phenomena outside the tropics. In surface weather analyses, fronts are depicted using various colored triangles and half-circles, depending on the type of front. The air masses separated by a front usually differ in temperature and humidity.

Dew point temperature at which air becomes saturated with water vapor

The dew point is the temperature to which air must be cooled to become saturated with water vapor. When further cooled, the airborne water vapor will condense to form liquid water (dew). When air cools to its dew point through contact with a surface that is colder than the air, water will condense on the surface. When the temperature is below the freezing point of water, the dew point is called the frost point, as frost is formed rather than dew. The measurement of the dew point is related to humidity. A higher dew point means there will be more moisture in the air.

Thunderstorms can form and develop in any geographic location but most frequently within the mid-latitude, where warm, moist air from tropical latitudes collides with cooler air from polar latitudes. [3] Thunderstorms are responsible for the development and formation of many severe weather phenomena. Thunderstorms, and the phenomena that occur along with them, pose great hazards. Damage that results from thunderstorms is mainly inflicted by downburst winds, large hailstones, and flash flooding caused by heavy precipitation. Stronger thunderstorm cells are capable of producing tornadoes and waterspouts.


A downburst is a strong ground-level wind system that emanates from a point source above and blows radially, that is, in straight lines in all directions from the point of contact at ground level. Often producing damaging winds, it may be confused with a tornado, where high-velocity winds circle a central area, and air moves inward and upward; by contrast, in a downburst, winds are directed downward and then outward from the surface landing point.

Waterspout weather phenomenon, intense columnar vortex that occurs over a body of water, commonly a non-supercell tornado over water

A waterspout is an intense columnar vortex that occurs over a body of water. Some are connected to a cumulus congestus cloud, some to a cumuliform cloud and some to a cumulonimbus cloud. In the common form, it is a non-supercell tornado over water.

There are four types of thunderstorms: single-cell, multi-cell cluster, multi-cell lines and supercells. Supercell thunderstorms are the strongest and most severe. Mesoscale convective systems formed by favorable vertical wind shear within the tropics and subtropics can be responsible for the development of hurricanes. Dry thunderstorms, with no precipitation, can cause the outbreak of wildfires from the heat generated from the cloud-to-ground lightning that accompanies them. Several means are used to study thunderstorms: weather radar, weather stations, and video photography. Past civilizations held various myths concerning thunderstorms and their development as late as the 18th century. Beyond the Earth's atmosphere, thunderstorms have also been observed on the planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and, probably, Venus.

Air-mass thunderstorm

An air-mass thunderstorm, also called an "ordinary", "single cell", or "garden variety" thunderstorm, is a thunderstorm that is generally weak and usually not severe. These storms form in environments where at least some amount of Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) is present, but very low levels of wind shear and helicity. The lifting source, which is a crucial factor in thunderstorm development, is usually the result of uneven heating of the surface, though they can be induced by weather fronts and other low-level boundaries associated with wind convergence. The energy needed for these storms to form comes in the form of insolation, or solar radiation. Air-mass thunderstorms do not move quickly, last no longer than an hour, and have the threats of lightning, as well as showery light, moderate, or heavy rainfall. Heavy rainfall can interfere with microwave transmissions within the atmosphere.

Multicellular thunderstorm

A multicellular thunderstorm cluster is a thunderstorm that is composed of multiple cells, each being at a different stage in the life cycle of a thunderstorm. It appears as several anvils clustered together. A cell is an updraft/downdraft couplet. These different cells will dissipate as new cells form and continue the life of the multicellular thunderstorm cluster with each cell taking a turn as the dominant cell in the group.

Mesoscale convective system complex of thunderstorms organized on a larger scale

A mesoscale convective system (MCS) is a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms but smaller than extratropical cyclones, and normally persists for several hours or more. A mesoscale convective system's overall cloud and precipitation pattern may be round or linear in shape, and include weather systems such as tropical cyclones, squall lines, lake-effect snow events, polar lows, and Mesoscale Convective Complexes (MCCs), and generally form near weather fronts. The type that forms during the warm season over land has been noted across North America, Europe, and Asia, with a maximum in activity noted during the late afternoon and evening hours.

Life cycle

Stages of a thunderstorm's life. Thunderstorm formation.jpg
Stages of a thunderstorm's life.

Warm air has a lower density than cool air, so warmer air rises upwards and cooler air will settle at the bottom [4] (this effect can be seen with a hot air balloon). [5] Clouds form as relatively warmer air, carrying moisture, rises within cooler air. The moist air rises, and, as it does so, it cools and some of the water vapor in that rising air condenses. [6] When the moisture condenses, it releases energy known as latent heat of condensation, which allows the rising packet of air to cool less than the cooler surrounding air [7] continuing the cloud's ascension. If enough instability is present in the atmosphere, this process will continue long enough for cumulonimbus clouds to form and produce lightning and thunder. Meteorological indices such as convective available potential energy (CAPE) and the lifted index can be used to assist in determining potential upward vertical development of clouds. [8] Generally, thunderstorms require three conditions to form:

The density, or more precisely, the volumetric mass density, of a substance is its mass per unit volume. The symbol most often used for density is ρ, although the Latin letter D can also be used. Mathematically, density is defined as mass divided by volume:

Hot air balloon lighter than air aircraft consisting of a bag, called an envelope, which contains heated air

A hot air balloon is a lighter-than-air aircraft consisting of a bag, called an envelope, which contains heated air. Suspended beneath is a gondola or wicker basket, which carries passengers and a source of heat, in most cases an open flame caused by burning liquid propane. The heated air inside the envelope makes it buoyant since it has a lower density than the colder air outside the envelope. As with all aircraft, hot air balloons cannot fly beyond the atmosphere. Unlike gas balloons, the envelope does not have to be sealed at the bottom, since the air near the bottom of the envelope is at the same pressure as the surrounding air. In modern sport balloons the envelope is generally made from nylon fabric and the inlet of the balloon is made from a fire resistant material such as Nomex. Modern balloons have been made in all kinds of shapes, such as rocket ships and the shapes of various commercial products, though the traditional shape is used for most non-commercial, and many commercial, applications.

Water vapor gaseous phase of water; unlike other forms of water, water vapor is invisible

Water vapor, water vapour or aqueous vapor is the gaseous phase of water. It is one state of water within the hydrosphere. Water vapor can be produced from the evaporation or boiling of liquid water or from the sublimation of ice. Unlike other forms of water, water vapor is invisible. Under typical atmospheric conditions, water vapor is continuously generated by evaporation and removed by condensation. It is less dense than air and triggers convection currents that can lead to clouds.

  1. Moisture
  2. An unstable airmass
  3. A lifting force (heat)

All thunderstorms, regardless of type, go through three stages: the developing stage, the mature stage, and the dissipation stage. [9] The average thunderstorm has a 24 km (15 mi) diameter. Depending on the conditions present in the atmosphere, each of these three stages take an average of 30 minutes. [10]

Developing stage

The first stage of a thunderstorm is the cumulus stage or developing stage. During this stage, masses of moisture are lifted upwards into the atmosphere. The trigger for this lift can be solar illumination, where the heating of the ground produces thermals, or where two winds converge forcing air upwards, or where winds blow over terrain of increasing elevation. The moisture carried upward cools into liquid drops of water due to lower temperatures at high altitude, which appear as cumulus clouds. As the water vapor condenses into liquid, latent heat is released, which warms the air, causing it to become less dense than the surrounding, drier air. The air tends to rise in an updraft through the process of convection (hence the term convective precipitation). This process creates a low-pressure zone within and beneath the forming thunderstorm. In a typical thunderstorm, approximately 500 million kilograms of water vapor are lifted into the Earth's atmosphere. [11]

Mature stage

Anvil-shaped thundercloud in the mature stage Anvil shaped cumulus panorama edit crop.jpg
Anvil-shaped thundercloud in the mature stage

In the mature stage of a thunderstorm, the warmed air continues to rise until it reaches an area of warmer air and can rise no farther. Often this 'cap' is the tropopause. The air is instead forced to spread out, giving the storm a characteristic anvil shape. The resulting cloud is called cumulonimbus incus . The water droplets coalesce into larger and heavier droplets and freeze to become ice particles. As these fall, they melt to become rain. If the updraft is strong enough, the droplets are held aloft long enough to become so large that they do not melt completely but fall as hail. While updrafts are still present, the falling rain drags the surrounding air with it, creating downdrafts as well. The simultaneous presence of both an updraft and a downdraft marks the mature stage of the storm and produces cumulonimbus clouds. During this stage, considerable internal turbulence can occur within, which manifests as strong winds, severe lightning, and even tornadoes. [12]

Typically, if there is little wind shear, the storm will rapidly enter the dissipating stage and 'rain itself out', [9] but, if there is sufficient change in wind speed or direction, the downdraft will be separated from the updraft, and the storm may become a supercell, where the mature stage can sustain itself for several hours. [13]

Dissipating stage

A thunderstorm in an environment with no winds to shear the storm or blow the anvil in any one direction Single-cell Thunderstorm in a No-shear Environment..jpg
A thunderstorm in an environment with no winds to shear the storm or blow the anvil in any one direction

In the dissipation stage, the thunderstorm is dominated by the downdraft. If atmospheric conditions do not support super cellular development, this stage occurs rather quickly, approximately 20–30 minutes into the life of the thunderstorm. The downdraft will push down out of the thunderstorm, hit the ground and spread out. This phenomenon is known as a downburst. The cool air carried to the ground by the downdraft cuts off the inflow of the thunderstorm, the updraft disappears and the thunderstorm will dissipate. Thunderstorms in an atmosphere with virtually no vertical wind shear weaken as soon as they send out an outflow boundary in all directions, which then quickly cuts off its inflow of relatively warm, moist air, and kills the thunderstorm's further growth. [14] The downdraft hitting the ground creates an outflow boundary. This can cause downbursts, a potential hazardous condition for aircraft to fly through, as a substantial change in wind speed and direction occurs, resulting in a decrease of airspeed and the subsequent reduction in lift for the aircraft. The stronger the outflow boundary is, the stronger the resultant vertical wind shear becomes. [15]


Conditions favorable for thunderstorm types and complexes CAPE vs SHEAR.png
Conditions favorable for thunderstorm types and complexes

There are four main types of thunderstorms: single-cell, multi-cell, squall line (also called multi-cell line) and supercell. Which type forms depends on the instability and relative wind conditions at different layers of the atmosphere ("wind shear"). Single-cell thunderstorms form in environments of low vertical wind shear and last only 20–30 minutes.

Organized thunderstorms and thunderstorm clusters/lines can have longer life cycles as they form in environments of significant vertical wind shear, normally greater than 25 knots (13 m/s) in the lowest 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) of the troposphere, [16] which aids the development of stronger updrafts as well as various forms of severe weather. The supercell is the strongest of the thunderstorms, most commonly associated with large hail, high winds, and tornado formation. Precipitable water values of greater than 31.8 millimetres (1.25 in) favor the development of organized thunderstorm complexes. [17] Those with heavy rainfall normally have precipitable water values greater than 36.9 millimetres (1.45 in). [18] Upstream values of CAPE of greater than 800 J/kg are usually required for the development of organized convection. [19]


A single-cell thunderstorm over Wagga Wagga. Thunderstorm over Wagga Wagga.jpg
A single-cell thunderstorm over Wagga Wagga.

This term technically applies to a single thunderstorm with one main updraft. Also known as air-mass thunderstorms, these are the typical summer thunderstorms in many temperate locales. They also occur in the cool unstable air that often follows the passage of a cold front from the sea during winter. Within a cluster of thunderstorms, the term "cell" refers to each separate principal updraft. Thunderstorm cells occasionally form in isolation, as the occurrence of one thunderstorm can develop an outflow boundary that sets up new thunderstorm development. Such storms are rarely severe and are a result of local atmospheric instability; hence the term "air mass thunderstorm". When such storms have a brief period of severe weather associated with them, it is known as a pulse severe storm. Pulse severe storms are poorly organized and occur randomly in time and space, making them difficult to forecast. Single-cell thunderstorms normally last 20–30 minutes. [10]

Multi-cell clusters

A group of thunderstorms over Brazil photographed by the Space Shuttle Challenger. 8402 STS41B Challenger Thunderstorms over Brazil.JPG
A group of thunderstorms over Brazil photographed by the Space Shuttle Challenger.

This is the most common type of thunderstorm development. Mature thunderstorms are found near the center of the cluster, while dissipating thunderstorms exist on their downwind side. Multicell storms form as clusters of storms but may then evolve into one or more squall lines. While each cell of the cluster may only last 20 minutes, the cluster itself may persist for hours at a time. They often arise from convective updrafts in or near mountain ranges and linear weather boundaries, such as strong cold fronts or troughs of low pressure. These type of storms are stronger than the single-cell storm, yet much weaker than the supercell storm. Hazards with the multicell cluster include moderate-sized hail, flash flooding, and weak tornadoes. [10]

Multicell lines

A squall line is an elongated line of severe thunderstorms that can form along or ahead of a cold front. [20] [21] In the early 20th century, the term was used as a synonym for cold front. [22] The squall line contains heavy precipitation, hail, frequent lightning, strong straight line winds, and possibly tornadoes and waterspouts. [23] Severe weather in the form of strong straight-line winds can be expected in areas where the squall line itself is in the shape of a bow echo, within the portion of the line that bows out the most. [24] Tornadoes can be found along waves within a line echo wave pattern, or LEWP, where mesoscale low pressure areas are present. [25] Some bow echoes in the summer are called derechos, and move quite fast through large sections of territory. [26] On the back edge of the rain shield associated with mature squall lines, a wake low can form, which is a mesoscale low pressure area that forms behind the mesoscale high pressure system normally present under the rain canopy, which are sometimes associated with a heat burst. [27] This kind of storm is also known as "Wind of the Stony Lake" (Traditional Chinese:石湖風 – shi2 hu2 feng1, Simplified Chinese: 石湖风) in southern China. [28]


A supercell thunderstorm over Chaparral, New Mexico. Chaparral Supercell 2.JPG
A supercell thunderstorm over Chaparral, New Mexico.
The setting sun illuminates the top of a classic anvil-shaped thunderstorm cloud in eastern Nebraska, United States. Thunderhead.anvil.jpg
The setting sun illuminates the top of a classic anvil-shaped thunderstorm cloud in eastern Nebraska, United States.

Supercell storms are large, usually severe, quasi-steady-state storms that form in an environment where wind speed or wind direction varies with height ("wind shear"), and they have separate downdrafts and updrafts (i.e., where its associated precipitation is not falling through the updraft) with a strong, rotating updraft (a "mesocyclone"). These storms normally have such powerful updrafts that the top of the supercell storm cloud (or anvil) can break through the troposphere and reach into the lower levels of the stratosphere, and supercell storms can be 24 kilometres (15 mi) wide. Research has shown that at least 90 percent of supercells cause severe weather. [13] These storms can produce destructive tornadoes, extremely large hailstones (10 centimetres or 4 inches diameter), straight-line winds in excess of 130 km/h (81 mph), and flash floods. In fact, research has shown that most tornadoes occur from this type of thunderstorm. [29] Supercells are generally the strongest type of thunderstorm. [10]

Severe thunderstorms

In the United States, a thunderstorm is classed as severe if winds reach at least 93 kilometres per hour (58 mph), hail is 25 millimetres (1 in) in diameter or larger, or if funnel clouds or tornadoes are reported. [30] [31] [32] Although a funnel cloud or tornado indicates a severe thunderstorm, a tornado warning is issued in place of a severe thunderstorm warning. A severe thunderstorm warning is issued if a thunderstorm becomes severe, or will soon turn severe. In Canada, a rainfall rate greater than 50 millimetres (2 in) in one hour, or 75 millimetres (3 in) in three hours, is also used to indicate severe thunderstorms. [33] Severe thunderstorms can occur from any type of storm cell. However, multicell, supercell, and squall lines represent the most common forms of thunderstorms that produce severe weather. [13]

Mesoscale convective systems

MCC moving through New England: August 2, 2006 0600 UTC MCCaug0220060545z.gif
MCC moving through New England: August 2, 2006 0600 UTC

A mesoscale convective system (MCS) is a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms but smaller than extratropical cyclones, and normally persists for several hours or more. [34] A mesoscale convective system's overall cloud and precipitation pattern may be round or linear in shape, and include weather systems such as tropical cyclones, squall lines, lake-effect snow events, polar lows, and mesoscale convective complexes (MCCs), and they generally form near weather fronts. Most mesoscale convective systems develop overnight and continue their lifespan through the next day. [9] The type that forms during the warm season over land has been noted across North America, Europe, and Asia, with a maximum in activity noted during the late afternoon and evening hours. [35] [36]

Forms of MCS that develop in the tropics are found in use either the Intertropical Convergence Zone or monsoon troughs, generally within the warm season between spring and fall. More intense systems form over land than over water. [37] [38] One exception is that of lake-effect snow bands, which form due to cold air moving across relatively warm bodies of water, and occurs from fall through spring. [39] Polar lows are a second special class of MCS. They form at high latitudes during the cold season. [40] Once the parent MCS dies, later thunderstorm development can occur in connection with its remnant mesoscale convective vortex (MCV). [41] Mesoscale convective systems are important to the United States rainfall climatology over the Great Plains since they bring the region about half of their annual warm season rainfall. [42]


Thunderstorm line viewed in reflectivity (dBZ) on a plan position indicator radar display Sturmfront auf Doppler-Radar-Schirm.jpg
Thunderstorm line viewed in reflectivity (dBZ) on a plan position indicator radar display

The two major ways thunderstorms move are via advection of the wind and propagation along outflow boundaries towards sources of greater heat and moisture. Many thunderstorms move with the mean wind speed through the Earth's troposphere, the lowest 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) of the Earth's atmosphere. Weaker thunderstorms are steered by winds closer to the Earth's surface than stronger thunderstorms, as the weaker thunderstorms are not as tall. Organized, long-lived thunderstorm cells and complexes move at a right angle to the direction of the vertical wind shear vector. If the gust front, or leading edge of the outflow boundary, races ahead of the thunderstorm, its motion will accelerate in tandem. This is more of a factor with thunderstorms with heavy precipitation (HP) than with thunderstorms with low precipitation (LP). When thunderstorms merge, which is most likely when numerous thunderstorms exist in proximity to each other, the motion of the stronger thunderstorm normally dictates the future motion of the merged cell. The stronger the mean wind, the less likely other processes will be involved in storm motion. On weather radar, storms are tracked by using a prominent feature and tracking it from scan to scan. [13]

Back-building thunderstorm

A back-building thunderstorm, commonly referred to as a training thunderstorm, is a thunderstorm in which new development takes place on the upwind side (usually the west or southwest side in the Northern Hemisphere), such that the storm seems to remain stationary or propagate in a backward direction. Though the storm often appears stationary on radar, or even moving upwind, this is an illusion. The storm is really a multi-cell storm with new, more vigorous cells that form on the upwind side, replacing older cells that continue to drift downwind. [43] [44] When this happens, catastrophic flooding is possible. In Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1972, an unusual alignment of winds at various levels of the atmosphere combined to produce a continuously training set of cells that dropped an enormous quantity of rain upon the same area, resulting in devastating flash flooding. [45] A similar event occurred in Boscastle, England, on 16 August 2004, [46] and over Chennai on 1 December 2015 [47]


Each year, many people are killed or seriously injured by severe thunderstorms despite the advance warning[ citation needed ]. While severe thunderstorms are most common in the spring and summer, they can occur at just about any time of the year.

Cloud-to-ground lightning

A return stroke, cloud-to-ground lightning strike during a thunderstorm. Blitze IMGP6376 wp.jpg
A return stroke, cloud-to-ground lightning strike during a thunderstorm.

Cloud-to-ground lightning frequently occurs within the phenomena of thunderstorms and have numerous hazards towards landscapes and populations. One of the more significant hazards lightning can pose is the wildfires they are capable of igniting. [48] Under a regime of low precipitation (LP) thunderstorms, where little precipitation is present, rainfall cannot prevent fires from starting when vegetation is dry as lightning produces a concentrated amount of extreme heat. [49] Direct damage caused by lightning strikes occurs on occasion. [50] In areas with a high frequency for cloud-to-ground lightning, like Florida, lightning causes several fatalities per year, most commonly to people working outside. [51]

Acid rain is also a frequent risk produced by lightning. Distilled water has a neutral pH of 7. “Clean” or unpolluted rain has a slightly acidic pH of about 5.2, because carbon dioxide and water in the air react together to form carbonic acid, a weak acid (pH 5.6 in distilled water), but unpolluted rain also contains other chemicals. [52] Nitric oxide present during thunderstorm phenomena, [53] caused by the oxidation of atmospheric nitrogen, can result in the production of acid rain, if nitric oxide forms compounds with the water molecules in precipitation, thus creating acid rain. Acid rain can damage infrastructures containing calcite or certain other solid chemical compounds. In ecosystems, acid rain can dissolve plant tissues of vegetations and increase acidification process in bodies of water and in soil, resulting in deaths of marine and terrestrial organisms. [54]


Hailstorm in Bogota, Colombia. Bogota hailstorm.jpg
Hailstorm in Bogotá, Colombia.

Any thunderstorm that produces hail that reaches the ground is known as a hailstorm. [55] Thunderclouds that are capable of producing hailstones are often seen obtaining green coloration. Hail is more common along mountain ranges because mountains force horizontal winds upwards (known as orographic lifting), thereby intensifying the updrafts within thunderstorms and making hail more likely. [56] One of the more common regions for large hail is across mountainous northern India, which reported one of the highest hail-related death tolls on record in 1888. [57] China also experiences significant hailstorms. [58] Across Europe, Croatia experiences frequent occurrences of hail. [59]

In North America, hail is most common in the area where Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming meet, known as "Hail Alley". [60] Hail in this region occurs between the months of March and October during the afternoon and evening hours, with the bulk of the occurrences from May through September. Cheyenne, Wyoming is North America's most hail-prone city with an average of nine to ten hailstorms per season. [61] In South America, areas prone to hail are cities like Bogotá, Colombia.

Hail can cause serious damage, notably to automobiles, aircraft, skylights, glass-roofed structures, livestock, and most commonly, farmers' crops. [61] Hail is one of the most significant thunderstorm hazards to aircraft. When hail stones exceed 13 millimetres (0.5 in) in diameter, planes can be seriously damaged within seconds. [62] The hailstones accumulating on the ground can also be hazardous to landing aircraft. Wheat, corn, soybeans, and tobacco are the most sensitive crops to hail damage. [57] Hail is one of Canada's most costly hazards. [63] Hailstorms have been the cause of costly and deadly events throughout history. One of the earliest recorded incidents occurred around the 9th century in Roopkund, Uttarakhand, India. [64] The largest hailstone in terms of maximum circumference and length ever recorded in the United States fell in 2003 in Aurora, Nebraska, United States. [65]

Tornadoes and waterspouts

In June 2007, the town of Elie, Manitoba was struck by an F5 tornado. F5 tornado Elie Manitoba 2007.jpg
In June 2007, the town of Elie, Manitoba was struck by an F5 tornado.

A tornado is a violent, rotating column of air in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud (otherwise known as a thundercloud) or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. Tornadoes come in many sizes but are typically in the form of a visible condensation funnel, whose narrow end touches the earth and is often encircled by a cloud of debris and dust. [66] Most tornadoes have wind speeds between 40 and 110 mph (64 and 177 km/h), are approximately 75 metres (246 ft) across, and travel several kilometers (a few miles) before dissipating. Some attain wind speeds of more than 300 mph (480 km/h), stretch more than 1,600 metres (1 mi) across, and stay on the ground for more than 100 kilometres (dozens of miles). [67] [68] [69]

The Fujita scale and the Enhanced Fujita Scale rate tornadoes by damage caused. An EF0 tornado, the weakest category, damages trees but not substantial structures. An EF5 tornado, the strongest category, rips buildings off their foundations and can deform large skyscrapers. The similar TORRO scale ranges from a T0 for extremely weak tornadoes to T11 for the most powerful known tornadoes. [70] Doppler radar data, photogrammetry, and ground swirl patterns (cycloidal marks) may also be analyzed to determine intensity and award a rating. [71]

Formation of numerous waterspouts in the Great Lakes region. (North America) Great Lakes Waterspouts.jpg
Formation of numerous waterspouts in the Great Lakes region. (North America)
A flash flood caused by a severe thunderstorm Kings Christian Church carpark Flooded.jpg
A flash flood caused by a severe thunderstorm

Waterspouts have similar characteristics as tornadoes, characterized by a spiraling funnel-shaped wind current that form over bodies of water, connecting to large cumulonimbus clouds. Waterspouts are generally classified as forms of tornadoes, or more specifically, non-supercelled tornadoes that develop over large bodies of water. [72] These spiralling columns of air frequently develop within tropical areas close to the equator, but are less common within areas of high latitude. [73]

Flash flood

Flash flooding is the process where a landscape, most notably an urban environment, is subjected to rapid floods. [74] These rapid floods occur more quickly and are more localized than seasonal river flooding or areal flooding [75] and are frequently (though not always) associated with intense rainfall. [76] Flash flooding can frequently occur in slow-moving thunderstorms and is usually caused by the heavy liquid precipitation that accompanies it. Flash floods are most common in densely populated urban environments, where few plants and bodies of water are present to absorb and contain the extra water. Flash flooding can be hazardous to small infrastructure, such as bridges, and weakly constructed buildings. Plants and crops in agricultural areas can be destroyed and devastated by the force of raging water. Automobiles parked within affected areas can also be displaced. Soil erosion can occur as well, exposing risks of landslide phenomena.


Trees uprooted or displaced by the force of a downburst wind in northwest Monroe County, Wisconsin. Downburst damage.jpg
Trees uprooted or displaced by the force of a downburst wind in northwest Monroe County, Wisconsin.

Downburst winds can produce numerous hazards to landscapes experiencing thunderstorms. Downburst winds are generally very powerful, and are often mistaken for wind speeds produced by tornadoes, [77] due to the concentrated amount of force exerted by their straight-horizontal characteristic. Downburst winds can be hazardous to unstable, incomplete, or weakly constructed infrastructures and buildings. Agricultural crops, and other plants in nearby environments can be uprooted and damaged. Aircraft engaged in takeoff or landing can crash. [9] [77] Automobiles can be displaced by the force exerted by downburst winds. Downburst winds are usually formed in areas when high pressure air systems of downdrafts begin to sink and displace the air masses below it, due to their higher density. When these downdrafts reach the surface, they spread out and turn into the destructive straight-horizontal winds. [9]

Thunderstorm asthma

Thunderstorm asthma is the triggering of an asthma attack by environmental conditions directly caused by a local thunderstorm. During a thunderstorm, pollen grains can absorb moisture and then burst into much smaller fragments with these fragments being easily dispersed by wind. While larger pollen grains are usually filtered by hairs in the nose, the smaller pollen fragments are able to pass through and enter the lungs, triggering the asthma attack. [78] [79] [80] [81]

Safety precautions

Most thunderstorms come and go fairly uneventfully; however, any thunderstorm can become severe, and all thunderstorms, by definition, present the danger of lightning. [82] Thunderstorm preparedness and safety refers to taking steps before, during, and after a thunderstorm to minimize injury and damage.


Preparedness refers to precautions that should be taken before a thunderstorm. Some preparedness takes the form of general readiness (as a thunderstorm can occur at any time of the day or year). [83] Preparing a family emergency plan, for example, can save valuable time if a storm arises quickly and unexpectedly. [84] Preparing the home by removing dead or rotting limbs and trees, which can be blown over in high winds, can also significantly reduce the risk of property damage and personal injury. [85]

The National Weather Service (NWS) in the United States recommends several precautions that people should take if thunderstorms are likely to occur: [83]

  • Know the names of local counties, cities, and towns, as these are how warnings are described. [83]
  • Monitor forecasts and weather conditions and know whether thunderstorms are likely in the area. [86]
  • Be alert for natural signs of an approaching storm.
  • Cancel or reschedule outdoor events (to avoid being caught outdoors when a storm hits). [86]
  • Take action early so you have time to get to a safe place. [86]
  • Get inside a substantial building or hard-topped metal vehicle before threatening weather arrives. [86]
  • If you hear thunder, get to the safe place immediately. [86]
  • Avoid open areas like hilltops, fields, and beaches, and don't be or be near the tallest objects in an area when thunderstorms are occurring. [83] [86]
  • Don't shelter under tall or isolated trees during thunderstorms. [86]
  • If in the woods, put as much distance as possible between you and any trees during thunderstorms. [86]
  • If in a group, spread out to increase the chances of survivors who could come to the aid of any victims from a lightning strike. [86]


While safety and preparedness often overlap, “thunderstorm safety” generally refers to what people should do during and after a storm. The American Red Cross recommends that people follow these precautions if a storm is imminent or in progress: [82]

  • Take action immediately upon hearing thunder. Anyone close enough to the storm to hear thunder can be struck by lightning. [85]
  • Avoid electrical appliances, including corded telephones. [82] Cordless and wireless telephones are safe to use during a thunderstorm. [85]
  • Close and stay away from windows and doors, as glass can become a serious hazard in high wind. [82]
  • Do not bathe or shower, as plumbing conducts electricity.
  • If driving, safely exit the roadway, turn on hazard lights, and park. Remain in the vehicle and avoid touching metal. [82]

The NWS stopped recommending the "lightning crouch" in 2008 as it doesn't provide a significant level of protection and will not significantly lower the risk of being killed or injured from a nearby lightning strike. [86] [87] [88]

Frequent occurrences

A mild thunderstorm over Niagara Falls, Ontario. Cumulonimbus Over Niagara Falls.JPG
A mild thunderstorm over Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Thunderstorms occur throughout the world, even in the polar regions, with the greatest frequency in tropical rainforest areas, where they may occur nearly daily. At any given time approximately 2,000 thunderstorms are occurring on Earth. [89] Kampala and Tororo in Uganda have each been mentioned as the most thunderous places on Earth, [90] a claim also made for Singapore and Bogor on the Indonesian island of Java. Other cities known for frequent storm activity include Darwin, Caracas, Manila and Mumbai. Thunderstorms are associated with the various monsoon seasons around the globe, and they populate the rainbands of tropical cyclones. [91] In temperate regions, they are most frequent in spring and summer, although they can occur along or ahead of cold fronts at any time of year. [92] They may also occur within a cooler air mass following the passage of a cold front over a relatively warmer body of water. Thunderstorms are rare in polar regions because of cold surface temperatures.

Some of the most powerful thunderstorms over the United States occur in the Midwest and the Southern states. These storms can produce large hail and powerful tornadoes. Thunderstorms are relatively uncommon along much of the West Coast of the United States, [93] but they occur with greater frequency in the inland areas, particularly the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys of California. In spring and summer, they occur nearly daily in certain areas of the Rocky Mountains as part of the North American Monsoon regime. In the Northeast, storms take on similar characteristics and patterns as the Midwest, but with less frequency and severity. During the summer, air-mass thunderstorms are an almost daily occurrence over central and southern parts of Florida.


How thunderstorms launch particle beams into space How thunderstorms launch particle beams into space 300dpi.jpg
How thunderstorms launch particle beams into space

If the quantity of water that is condensed in and subsequently precipitated from a cloud is known, then the total energy of a thunderstorm can be calculated. In a typical thunderstorm, approximately 5×108 kg of water vapor are lifted, and the amount of energy released when this condenses is 1015 joules. This is on the same order of magnitude of energy released within a tropical cyclone, and more energy than that released during the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. [11]

The Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor results show that gamma rays and antimatter particles (positrons) can be generated in powerful thunderstorms. [94] It is suggested that the antimatter positrons are formed in terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGF). TGFs are brief bursts occurring inside thunderstorms and associated with lightning. The streams of positrons and electrons collide higher in the atmosphere to generate more gamma rays. [95] About 500 TGFs may occur every day worldwide, but mostly go undetected.


In more contemporary times, thunderstorms have taken on the role of a scientific curiosity. Every spring, storm chasers head to the Great Plains of the United States and the Canadian Prairies to explore the scientific aspects of storms and tornadoes through use of videotaping. [96] Radio pulses produced by cosmic rays are being used to study how electric charges develop within thunderstorms. [97] More organized meteorological projects such as VORTEX2 use an array of sensors, such as the Doppler on Wheels, vehicles with mounted automated weather stations, weather balloons, and unmanned aircraft to investigate thunderstorms expected to produce severe weather. [98] Lightning is detected remotely using sensors that detect cloud-to-ground lightning strokes with 95 percent accuracy in detection and within 250 metres (820 ft) of their point of origin. [99]

Mythology and religion

Thunderstorms strongly influenced many early civilizations. Greeks believed that they were battles waged by Zeus, who hurled lightning bolts forged by Hephaestus. Some American Indian tribes associated thunderstorms with the Thunderbird, who they believed was a servant of the Great Spirit. The Norse considered thunderstorms to occur when Thor went to fight Jötnar, with the thunder and lightning being the effect of his strikes with the hammer Mjölnir. Hinduism recognizes Indra as the god of rain and thunderstorms. Christian doctrine accepts that fierce storms are the work of God. These ideas were still within the mainstream as late as the 18th century. [100]

Martin Luther was out walking when a thunderstorm began, causing him to pray to God for being saved and promising to become a monk. [101]

Outside of Earth

Thunderstorms, evidenced by flashes of lightning, on Jupiter have been detected and are associated with clouds where water may exist as both a liquid and ice, suggesting a mechanism similar to that on Earth. (Water is a polar molecule that can carry a charge, so it is capable of creating the charge separation needed to produce lightning.) [102] These electrical discharges can be up to a thousand times more powerful than lightning on the Earth. [103] The water clouds can form thunderstorms driven by the heat rising from the interior. [104] The clouds of Venus may also be capable of producing lightning; some observations suggest that the lightning rate is at least half of that on Earth. [105]

See also

Related Research Articles

Tornado Violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the earths surface and a cumulonimbus cloud in the air

A tornado is a rapidly rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the Earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. The windstorm is often referred to as a twister, whirlwind or cyclone, although the word cyclone is used in meteorology to name a weather system with a low-pressure area in the center around which, from an observer looking down toward the surface of the earth, winds blow counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern. Tornadoes come in many shapes and sizes, and they are often visible in the form of a condensation funnel originating from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud, with a cloud of rotating debris and dust beneath it. Most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 110 miles per hour (180 km/h), are about 250 feet (80 m) across, and travel a few miles before dissipating. The most extreme tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 300 miles per hour (480 km/h), are more than two miles (3 km) in diameter, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles.

Supercell thunderstorm that is characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone

A supercell is a thunderstorm characterized by the presence of a mesocyclone: a deep, persistently rotating updraft. For this reason, these storms are sometimes referred to as rotating thunderstorms. Of the four classifications of thunderstorms, supercells are the overall least common and have the potential to be the most severe. Supercells are often isolated from other thunderstorms, and can dominate the local weather up to 32 kilometres (20 mi) away. They tend to last 2-4 hours.


A mesocyclone is a vortex of air within a convective storm. It is air that rises and rotates around a vertical axis, usually in the same direction as low pressure systems in a given hemisphere. They are most often cyclonic, that is, associated with a localized low-pressure region within a severe thunderstorm. Such thunderstorms can feature strong surface winds and severe hail. Mesocyclones often occur together with updrafts in supercells, within which tornadoes may form at the interchange with certain downdrafts.

Squall sudden, sharp increase in the sustained winds over a short time interval

A squall is a sudden, sharp increase in wind speed lasting minutes, contrary to a wind gust lasting seconds. They are usually associated with active weather, such as rain showers, thunderstorms, or heavy snow. Squalls refer to the increase to the sustained winds over that time interval, as there may be higher gusts during a squall event. They usually occur in a region of strong sinking air or cooling in the mid-atmosphere. These force strong localized upward motions at the leading edge of the region of cooling, which then enhances local downward motions just in its wake.

Squall line

A squall line or quasi-linear convective system (QLCS) is a line of thunderstorms forming along or ahead of a cold front. In the early 20th century, the term was used as a synonym for cold front. It contains heavy precipitation, hail, frequent lightning, strong straight-line winds, and possibly tornadoes and waterspouts. Strong straight-line winds can occur where the squall line is in the shape of a bow echo. Tornadoes can occur along waves within a line echo wave pattern (LEWP), where mesoscale low-pressure areas are present. Some bow echoes which develop within the summer season are known as derechos, and they move quite fast through large sections of territory. On the back edge of the rainband associated with mature squall lines, a wake low can be present, sometimes associated with a heat burst.

Wall cloud cloud formation

A wall cloud is a large, localized, persistent, and often abrupt lowering of cloud that develops beneath the surrounding base of a cumulonimbus cloud and from which tornadoes sometimes form. It is typically beneath the rain-free base (RFB) portion of a thunderstorm, and indicates the area of the strongest updraft within a storm. Rotating wall clouds are an indication of a mesocyclone in a thunderstorm; most strong tornadoes form from these. Many wall clouds do rotate, however some do not.

Outflow boundary

An outflow boundary, also known as a gust front, is a storm-scale or mesoscale boundary separating thunderstorm-cooled air (outflow) from the surrounding air; similar in effect to a cold front, with passage marked by a wind shift and usually a drop in temperature and a related pressure jump. Outflow boundaries can persist for 24 hours or more after the thunderstorms that generated them dissipate, and can travel hundreds of kilometers from their area of origin. New thunderstorms often develop along outflow boundaries, especially near the point of intersection with another boundary. Outflow boundaries can be seen either as fine lines on weather radar imagery or else as arcs of low clouds on weather satellite imagery. From the ground, outflow boundaries can be co-located with the appearance of roll clouds and shelf clouds.

Cumulonimbus incus variety of cloud

A cumulonimbus incus also known as an anvil cloud is a cumulonimbus cloud which has reached the level of stratospheric stability and has formed the characteristic flat, anvil-top shape. It signifies the thunderstorm in its mature stage, succeeding the cumulonimbus calvus stage. Cumulonimbus incus is a sub-form of Cumulonimbus capillatus.

An arcus cloud is a low, horizontal cloud formation, usually appearing as an accessory cloud to a cumulonimbus. Roll clouds and shelf clouds are the two main types of arcus. Arcus clouds most frequently form along the leading edge or "gust fronts" of thunderstorm outflow; some of the most dramatic arcus formations mark the gust fronts of derecho-producing convective systems. Roll clouds also may arise in the absence of thunderstorms, forming along the shallow cold air currents of some sea breeze boundaries and cold fronts.

Tornadogenesis process by which a tornado forms

Tornadogenesis is the process by which a tornado forms. There are many types of tornadoes and these vary in methods of formation. Despite ongoing scientific study and high-profile research projects such as VORTEX, tornadogenesis is a volatile process and the intricacies of many of the mechanisms of tornado formation are still poorly understood.

Overshooting top part of the anvil of a thunderstorm

An overshooting top is a dome-like protrusion shooting out of the top of the anvil of a thunderstorm and into the lower stratosphere. When an overshooting top is present for 10 minutes or longer, it's a strong indication that the storm is severe.

Severe weather

Severe weather refers to any dangerous meteorological phenomena with the potential to cause damage, serious social disruption, or loss of human life. Types of severe weather phenomena vary, depending on the latitude, altitude, topography, and atmospheric conditions. High winds, hail, excessive precipitation, and wildfires are forms and effects of severe weather, as are thunderstorms, downbursts, tornadoes, waterspouts, tropical cyclones, and extratropical cyclones. Regional and seasonal severe weather phenomena include blizzards (snowstorms), ice storms, and duststorms.

Atmospheric convection

Atmospheric convection is the result of a parcel-environment instability, or temperature difference layer in the atmosphere. Different lapse rates within dry and moist air masses lead to instability. Mixing of air during the day which expands the height of the planetary boundary layer leads to increased winds, cumulus cloud development, and decreased surface dew points. Moist convection leads to thunderstorm development, which is often responsible for severe weather throughout the world. Special threats from thunderstorms include hail, downbursts, and tornadoes.

Convective storm detection is the meteorological observation, and short-term prediction, of deep moist convection (DMC). DMC describes atmospheric conditions producing single or clusters of large vertical extension clouds ranging from cumulus congestus to cumulonimbus, the latter producing thunderstorms associated with lightning and thunder. Those two types of clouds can produce severe weather at the surface and aloft.

The following is a glossary of tornado terms. It includes scientific as well as selected informal terminology.

Glossary of meteorology Wikimedia list article

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


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Further reading