How do Thunderstorms Develop

Thunderstorms typically inspire intense feelings in people – some people love them and others hate them, but it is rare for people to have no strong feeling about them one way or the other. In a way, it makes perfect sense since thunderstorms typically form as a result of polarizing and electrifying changes in the air and atmosphere.

Thunderstorms have 3 distinct stages:

1)     The cumulus stage

2)     The mature stage

3)     The dissipating stage

The cumulus stage:

Thunderstorms develop in much the same manner that cumulus clouds develop. Cumulus clouds are the puffy white clouds that form when humid air (or air that possesses an abundance of water vapor) rises vertically and cools off. When that humid air is combined with unstable air and lifted vertically into the atmosphere, the result tends to be condensation and a release of a type of energy called latent heat. The air inside the cloud is now much warmer than the air outside the cloud.

The mature stage:

Like all things, what goes up must come down. At some point the updraft of rising humid air changes its direction and becomes a downdraft. At this point the cumulus cloud begins to form into a cumulonimbus cloud, which has been associated with different types of severe weather like hail stones, wind, rain, thunder, lightning, and in severe cases, tornadoes. The cumulonimbus cloud is shaped similarly to an anvil.

The dissipating stage:

After approximately 30 minutes, the intensity of the thunderstorm begins to decrease. The hot, humid air in the lower atmosphere decreases causing the air currents within the storm to become mostly downdrafts. Usually this takes place within an hour and the storm subsides.

Occasionally conditions occur which stretch out the mature stage of the thunderstorm for a longer period of time. Typically this occurs when there is a more regular supply of latent heat energy and the updrafts and downdrafts in the storm are evenly distributed. When this occurs, the storm is able to sustain itself. These are usually more severe thunderstorms that include the presence of hail, strong winds and occasionally tornadoes and this type of storm tends to subside only when it has exhausted its supply of warm and humid air.

Thunderstorms are much more common in the warmer, more tropical climates and during the summer months due to the prevalence of warm, humid air under these circumstances.


Thunderstorms – Thunderstorm Development

Anita Grace Simpson – Thunderstorm Development.

Components of Thunderstorms – severe storms spotters guide.

Fundamentals of Physical Geography – Chapter 7 – Thunderstorms and Tornadoes.