Thunderstorm Basics

What is a thunderstorm?
A thunderstorm is a rain shower during which you hear thunder. Since thunder comes from lightning, all thunderstorms have lightning. A thunderstorm is classified as "severe" when it contains one or more of the following: hail three-quarter inch or greater, winds gusting in excess of 50 knots (57.5 mph), tornado.

What is known?
An average thunderstorm is 15 miles in diameter and lasts an average of 30 minutes. At any given moment, there are roughly 2,000 thunderstorms in progress around the world. It is estimated that there are 100,000 thunderstorms each year. About 10% of these reach severe levels.

How does a thunderstorm form?
Three basic ingredients are required for a thunderstorm to form: moisture, rising unstable air (air that keeps rising when given a nudge), and a lifting mechanism to provide the "nudge."

The sun heats the surface of the earth, which warms the air above it. If this warm surface air is forced to rise -- hills or mountains, or areas where warm/cold or wet/dry air bump together can cause rising motion -- it will continue to rise as long as it weighs less and stays warmer than the air around it. As the air rises, it transfers heat from the surface of the earth to the upper levels of the atmosphere (the process of convection). The water vapor it contains begins to cool, releasing the heat, and it condenses into a cloud. The cloud eventually grows upward into areas where the temperature is below freezing. Some of the water vapor turns to ice and some of it turns into water droplets. Both have electrical charges. Ice particles usually have positive charges, and rain droplets usually have negative charges. When the charges build up enough, they are discharged in a bolt of lightning, which causes the sound waves we hear as thunder.

The Thunderstorm Life Cycle
Thunderstorms have a life cycle of three stages: The developing stage, the mature stage, and the dissipating stage.

The developing stage of a thunderstorm is marked by a cumulus cloud that is being pushed upward by a rising column of air (updraft). The cumulus cloud soon looks like a tower (called towering cumulus) as the updraft continues to develop. There is little to no rain during this stage but occasional lightning. The developing stage lasts about 10 minutes.

The thunderstorm enters the mature stage when the updraft continues to feed the storm, but precipitation begins to fall out of the storm, and a downdraft begins (a column of air pushing downward). When the downdraft and rain-cooled air spreads out along the ground it forms a gust front, or a line of gusty winds. The mature stage is the most likely time for hail, heavy rain, frequent lightning, strong winds, and tornadoes. The storm occasionally has a black or dark green appearance.

Eventually, a large amount of precipitation is produced and the updraft is overcome by the downdraft beginning the dissipating stage. At the ground, the gust front moves out a long distance from the storm and cuts off the warm moist air that was feeding the thunderstorm. Rainfall decreases in intensity, but lightning remains a danger.

Types of Thunderstorms

The Single Cell Storm
Single cell thunderstorms usually last between 20-30 minutes. A true single cell storm is actually quite rare because often the gust front of one cell triggers the growth of another.

Most single cell storms are not usually severe. However, it is possible for a single cell storm to produce a brief severe weather event. When this happens, it is called a pulse severe storm. Their updrafts and downdrafts are slightly stronger, and typically produce hail that barely reaches severe limits and/or brief microbursts (a strong downdraft of air that hits the ground and spreads out). Brief heavy rainfall and occasionally a weak tornado are possible. Though pulse severe storms tend to form in more unstable environments than a non-severe single cell storm, they are usually poorly organized and seem to occur at random times and locations, making them difficult to forecast.

The Multicell Cluster Storm
The multicell cluster is the most common type of thunderstorm. The multicell cluster consists of a group of cells, moving along as one unit, with each cell in a different phase of the thunderstorm life cycle. Mature cells are usually found at the center of the cluster with dissipating cells at the downwind edge of the cluster.
Multicell Cluster storms can produce moderate size hail, flash floods and weak tornadoes.

Each cell in a multicell cluster lasts only about 20 minutes; the multicell cluster itself may persist for several hours. This type of storm is usually more intense than a single cell storm, but is much weaker than a supercell storm.

The Multicell Line Storm (Squall Line)

The multicell line storm, or squall line, consists of a long line of storms with a continuous well-developed gust front at the leading edge of the line. The line of storms can be solid, or there can be gaps and breaks in the line.

Squall lines can produce hail up to golf-ball size, heavy rainfall, and weak tornadoes, but they are best known as the producers of strong downdrafts. Occasionally, a strong downburst will accelerate a portion of the squall line ahead of the rest of the line. This produces what is called a bow echo. Bow echoes can develop with isolated cells as well as squall lines. Bow echoes are easily detected on radar but are difficult to observe visually.

The Supercell Storm
The supercell is a highly organized thunderstorm. Supercells are rare, but pose a high threat to life and property. A supercell is similar to the single-cell storm because they both have one main updraft. The difference in the updraft of a supercell is that the updraft is extremely strong, reaching estimated speeds of 150-175 miles per hour. The main characteristic which sets the supercell apart from the other thunderstorm types is the presence of rotation. The rotating updraft of a supercell (called a mesocyclone when visible on radar) helps the supercell to produce extreme severe weather events, such as giant hail (more than 2 inches in diameter, strong downbursts of 80 miles an hour or more, and strong to violent tornadoes.

The surrounding environment is a big factor in the organization of a supercell. Winds are coming from different directions to cause the rotation. And, as precipitation is produced in the updraft, the strong upper-level winds blow the precipitation downwind. Hardly any precipitation falls back down through the updraft, so the storm can survive for long periods of time.

The leading edge of the precipitation from a supercell is usually light rain. Heavier rain falls closer to the updraft with torrential rain and/or large hail immediately north and east of the main updraft. The area near the main updraft (typically towards the rear of the storm) is the preferred area for severe weather formation.

This and more information can be found at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site at www.noaa.gov


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