Posted by: Kelley Dees | April 22, 2011

The Perfect Storm: What does it take to form a thunderstorm?

We’ve all seen thunderstorms. Some of us have seen a few more than others. I know I saw a lot more back in Alabama than I’ve seen here! How do these thunderstorms form? What causes them to form?

Thunderstorms take many different shapes and forms. There are several classifications of thunderstorms as well. Thousands form across the globe every single day. They have and will continue to be studied for years to come. Thunderstorms generally need only three things to form:

  1. Moisture
  2. Instability
  3. Something to force lifting

The instability will most often develop as a result of something we see and feel every single day: sunshine (which also happens to be a suitable lifting mechanism). As solar radiation heats the ground beneath our feet (during a spring or summer day), an unstable atmosphere forms. Air is able to lift freely if warm air is below colder air. This simple relationship causes instability. If a suitable amount of moisture is combined with the warm air at the surface, clouds begin to develop as the air is forced up. Finally, we need some strong force to really push the air upward, developing a thunderstorm in the process as the moisture begins to condense. A front will usually do. But a sunny day or a mountain-like barrier will do just as well.

A simple way to visualize this is by thinking of a simple teapot on a stove. The stove heats the water in the pot (making moisture in the pot warmer than the air above it). Wow, instability in your own home! After time passes, the hot, boiling water rises due to evaporation within the pot. The gaseous form of water condenses into a “cloud” out of the teapot (when you hear that whistling noise telling you the water is ready). Essentially, this is the same process that forms a thunderstorm.

Special thanks to Joe Hansel, morning meteorologist for KCWY channel 13 in Casper, Wyoming, for sharing this information. Check out Joe’s Weather Blog for more weather information.

This information is provided courtesy of the Wyoming AgrAbility Project. For more information, visit our website or call toll-free at 866-395-4986.

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