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Boom, Flash: All About Powerful Thunderstorms

Updated: Jan 3

For some people, the roll of thunder in the distance is a welcome sound. For others, storms are something to be fearful of.


A lightning strike hitting the ground.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Thunderstorms are a force of nature, and one of the most powerful ones at that. Even mild storms produce dangerous lightning and must be respected.


No matter how strong the storm, the best place to be during a thunderstorm is inside, away from doors and windows. Always remember to heed the saying when thunder roars, go indoors. If you cannot get indoors, the next safest place is a hard-topped vehicle with all the windows rolled up. Thunder is the sound that lightning makes and can be heard from about 10 miles from a lightning strike. Once you hear thunder, you should always head indoors immediately.


Read on to learn more about thunderstorms.


They are extremely common


Thunderstorms certainly aren't an everyday occurrence locally, but they are an everyday occurrence globally. Across the world, an estimated 16 million thunderstorms occur each year. At any given moment, about 2,000 thunderstorms could be occurring across the planet.


In certain parts of the United States and the world, thunderstorms are much more common than in other places. Here in the United States, Florida experiences the most thunderstorms. Some parts of southern Florida experience 108 or more days a year with thunderstorms. Meanwhile, the coastal regions of California, Oregon and Washington experience only nine or fewer thunderstorm days a year.


Where do you think northern Illinois falls on the spectrum? As much as it seems like hearing a rumble of thunder in the distance is a common occurrence, we generally experience between 36 and 45 days a year with thunderstorms. That's only about 12% of the days of the year.


The place on Earth that experiences the most lightning strikes from thunderstorms is Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. The area experiences massive thunderstorms between 140 and 160 nights a year, and these storms can cause an average of 28 lightning strikes per minute.


They all form in the same way


For a thunderstorm to form, certain atmospheric conditions are required. Along with moisture, thunderstorms require instability and lift, which triggers motion in the atmosphere. The moisture often comes from the ocean, even in places far from a coast, thanks to strong winds. Instability can be created when warm, moist air near the ground is pushed up into colder, drier air. As the air pushes upward, thunderclouds form.

 

Words to know

Atmosphere: The envelope of gases surrounding a planet.

Dissipate: To disappear or cause to disappear.

Downdraft: A downward current of air.

Instability: A tendency of being unpredictable or erratic.

Mature: Fully developed or full grown.

Updraft: An upward current of air.

 

A thunderstorm goes through a life cycle just like all living things do. Each storm has three stages: the developing stage, the mature stage and the dissipating stage. The developing stage is when the warm, moist air is being pushed up, causing storm clouds to form. During the developing stage, little if any rain falls, but there can be occasional lightning and thunder.


The mature stage begins when heavy rain starts to fall, creating a downdraft. The mature stage is when a storm is at its most dangerous, able to produce heavy rain, hail, lightning, strong winds and even tornadoes. The final stage, the dissipating stage, occurs when the updraft is overcome by the downdraft. During this stage, rain can continue, but with less intensity. Lightning can also continue to occur.


There are several different kinds


While all thunderstorms form in the same way, not all thunderstorms are equal. There are four different types of thunderstorms. The most simple storms are single-cell thunderstorms. These storms are usually small and weak, lasting only an hour or two. These are the storms we often experience on summer afternoons because they are created as the atmosphere warms during the day. They can produce heavy rain and lightning.


Multi-cell storms are another common type, and these often are preceded by gusty winds. These storms may last a few hours. They often produce heavy rains and can be accompanied by hail, strong winds, flooding and brief tornadoes. Squall lines are groups of storms arranged in a long line, sometimes even hundreds of miles long. They are usually accompanied by high winds and heavy rains, and they pass quickly because the systems are usually no more than 10 miles to 20 miles wide.


Supercells are well-organized, long-lasting storms. These powerful storms feed off an updraft that is rotating, and thunderclouds can tower as high as 50,000 feet above the ground. Most large tornadoes are the result of supercell thunderstorms.


They are more dangerous than people think


When we think about dangerous weather events, tornadoes and hurricanes would probably top the list, but thunderstorms — specifically lightning — can be deadly. The number of lightning fatalities that occur in the United States varies from year to year, but from 2009 to 2018, the U.S. averaged 27 lightning-related deaths.


Only about 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, and the remaining 90% can have varying levels of injuries and disabilities. The odds of being struck by lightning in the United States in any given year are about 1 in 1.22 million, and the odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime (with an estimated life span of 80 years) are about 1 in 15,300. For some perspective, consider that the odds of winning the Powerball lottery jackpot are about 1 in 292.2 million.


Always remember that no place outdoors is safe when thunderstorms are nearby. If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to strike you. When you hear thunder, move indoors or to a safe structure, such as an enclosed, metal-topped vehicle. If you are caught outside, move away from elevated areas and get out of any body of water. Stay away from objects that can conduct electricity, such as power lines or barbed wire fences, and never take shelter under a tree or by lying flat on the ground.


They occur on other planets too


There's a lot we don't know about the other planets in our solar system, but we do know some of them experience storm systems similar to what we experience here on Earth. For example, Venus, our nearest planet, experiences lightning, possibly even more lightning than Earth does. And a storm has been raging on Jupiter for more than 300 years, although the storm has been getting smaller for the past 150 years.


Saturn experiences frequent storm activity, and the planet's storms can last for years. Even Saturn's moons experience storms. Neptune also experiences massive storm systems, and they can last years at a time. Mars experiences intense dust storms, and they can sometimes affect the entire planet.

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