Frightening and yet fascinating thunderstorms seem eternally captivating. To understand the elements of thunder and lightning one must first begin to understand the clouds, which create this meteorological phenomena.
The clouds, which always seem to grace our skies, are made up of infinitely tiny water molecules. The interactions of these molecules create an incredible force known as energy. The thick, hot, and muggy summer air makes for ideal thunderstorm conditions. The hot sunshine causes warm, evaporated water molecules to rise into cooler conditions.
These molecules let off energy in the form of steam, which gives rise to clouds. As clouds grow, they begin to have certain characteristics. The top of a thundercloud is very cold and holds tiny ice crystals. Meanwhile, the lower half contains warmer liquid and vapor. As winds come along, they disrupt this segregation, pushing the ice crystals into the lower half. As the ice hits the warmer sections of the cloud, it melts. Other winds push upward, causing the liquid vapor to freeze.
Occasionally these molecules grow bigger and heavier, eventually falling to the ground below, in the form of rain or hail.The movement of the winds and molecules described above also creates a build-up of friction. Friction creates energy. This frictional energy builds and builds as winds move, creating more action between warm and icy cloud particles.
This energy seeks discharge in the nearest object holding an opposite charge. Eventually, enough energy is built up that it needs to be released.The sudden burst of energy, or more technically, electrical discharge, soaring towards earth, emits a flash of light. This light is more commonly referred to as lightning.
This abrupt discharge of energy can be both beautiful and powerful. It draws our attention, yet represents a dangerous force. Estimated at 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit, lightning is extremely hot, more than five times hotter than the surface of the sun. In fact, many scientists theorize that the energy of lightning could power a country, for a year, if only it could be harnessed.
Lightning can cover an area ranging widely, from a few hundred feet, to many miles. This eye-catching discharge of energy is accompanied by a loud booming sound. In other words, thunder, though generally considered separate from lightning, is a noise, created by the same event. As lightning travels, it quickly heats up the air, creating a burst of movement away from the lightning bolt. This explosion of activity creates a thunderous noise.
As one witnesses a thunderstorm approach from afar it may seem as though the thunder and lightning occur separately. This is because the speed of light is much faster than sound, emanating the perception of a delay. As the storm moves closer, the two seem to come closer together.
You can often gauge how far away a storm is by the length of the gap- filing the void between lightening brightening the sky, and thunder filling one’s ears.
Keep in mind, that if you are close enough to hear the sound of thunder, you are within the grasp of lightning. Though lovely to look at, many individuals are harmed each year from lightning. Be sure to observe your next thunderstorm from a safe distance, keeping out of open fields, away from trees, open windows, or water.