The Role of Air Temperature in Thundercloud Formation

Seeing the formation of a thundercloud on a drive across the Texas panhandle is an exciting sight for storm chasers, but residents in the area know that thunderclouds often bring severe weather and destruction. Scientists study the role of air temperature in the formation of thunderclouds to predict the onset of stronger, more violent storms. Their goal is to help prevent the devastation that comes with these storms by developing warning systems to keep people safe.

Air temperature plays a major role in the formation of thunderclouds, also known as cumulonimbus clouds. Temperatures change throughout the day, and from one season to the next. Air temperature is dependent on the temperature of the surface directly below the air. When a cold front is passing through an area, winds become gusty, there is a sudden drop in temperature, and rain becomes heavy, sometimes with lightning, thunder and hail. 

The warm air ahead of the cold front produces cumulonimbus clouds and thunderstorms. Atmospheric pressure changes from falling to rising as the front moves, usually in a west to east pattern. After a cold front moves through, you may notice that the temperature is cooler, and once the rain has ended, the cumulus clouds are replaced by stratus clouds or clear skies.

The formation of cumulonimbus clouds occurs when warm air rises from the Earth’s surface. As the warm air rises, it begins to expand due to the lower pressure in the atmosphere that exists at higher levels. Condensation begins to form as the warm air cools. Next, as the warm, humid air continues to cool, water vapor condenses until thunderstorms are created.

In some cases a squall line will occur when multiple thunderstorms band together in a continuous line, between a cold front and a warm front. A squall line may produce a super-cell thunderstorm, where a huge rotating storm produces strong winds, possible tornadoes and baseball-sized hail. These storms are dangerous, and they are capable of causing destruction that takes years from which to recover.

Any motorist driving across the Texas panhandle may be in awe when they see a thunderstorm approaching, but the seasoned residents of this area know that an approaching storm is cause for alarm. They watch and listen for the signs that signal danger. These signs are sure indicators that a storm is brewing: a change in air temperature, increased expansion of cumulus clouds, increased moisture in the air, and eventually heavy precipitation in the form of rain or ice. Should these conditions worsen, take shelter immediately and wait for the storm to pass. Stay safe.