Many dogs become frightened during thunderstorms – and their owners might, too! Where do thunderstorms come from? And why do they make lightning and thunder?

Brewing up a storm

The creation of a thunderstorm requires specific conditions. There are three stages that thunderstorms are created and dissipated over. 

In the developing or cumulus stage, a thunderstorm forms when an updraft of warm air rises through the atmosphere. Hot air rises because the higher the temperature of something, the more it expands and the less dense it becomes.

As the air rises, heat is released, leaving water vapor. Eventually, the remaining water vapor cools and condenses into a cloud

The mature stage comes next. The cloud grows and becomes more gray in color as more water is added to it. When the air becomes too saturated with water, precipitation begins to fall. 

Just like hot air rises, cool air falls. A downdraft of cool air pulls the water molecules towards the ground. In the mature stage, the thunderstorm transforms into a cumulonimbus cloud. The cycling of air that happens in a thunderstorm is known as a thunderstorm cell.

Thunder itself is produced when cool water molecules collide. Some collisions cause changes in electric charges and as a result, make lightning. Lightning strikes produce shock waves that make a sound – thunder. Because sound is slower than light, you see lightning before you hear thunder.

The final stage of a thunderstorm is the dissipating stage. A thunderstorm weakens as the downdraft eventually overpowers the updraft. Light rain continues to fall as the cloud disappears from bottom to top.

The lifespan of a thunderstorm is about one hour, though severe thunderstorms can last much longer. 

When a thunderstorm is accompanied by a vortex of air, tornadoes can form. Even in the absence of a tornado, strong winds can knock over power lines and trees. Heavy rainfall can lead to flash floods. Hail damages property and causes injuries. And lightning causes fires and fatalities.

jar with fake cloud and lightning insid

Create your own cloud

While thunderstorms can be scary, they don’t have to be! You can make your own friendly storm at home. All you need is water, a jar, another container, food coloring, shaving cream, and a dropper or pipette. 

First, put some water in the container that isn’t the jar. Add a few drops of food coloring and set the water aside. 

Fill the glass jar with cold water until it is almost full, but leave some room at the top. Then spray shaving cream on top of the water to make a “cloud.” 

Using the dropper or pipette, suck up some colored water. Squirt it on top of the shaving cream. Slowly add more and more drops of water.

When the “cloud” becomes too heavy with colored water, drops will start to fall through the shaving cream into the clear water beneath it. 

Although the process is quite simplified, this activity allows you to see how a raincloud releases water. For added fun, make different colors of water to use as rain!

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