A thunderstorms is a fairly common weather phenomenon that can develop anytime of the year, but occur most frequently during warm, humid weather. According to H. Michael Mogil, author of Extreme Weather, as many as 100,000 thunderstorms occur in the United States annually. Anyone that has ever experienced a thunderstorm knows just how awe-inspiring such storms can be.
Thunderstorms have their own life cycles. Every thunderstorm, regardless of where on the planet it is occurring, goes through three distinct stages: the developing stage, the mature stage, and the dissipating stage. Each stage has its own unique set of characteristics as well as approximate duration.
The Developing Stage
In order for a thunderstorm to begin to develop, there must be atmospheric instability accompanied by moist air that has been lifted. Reader’s Digest Weather states that as long as the air continues to be unstable, the air will continue to rise. This begins the formation of a huge cumulus congestus cloud. The top of these types of clouds can grow at a rate of 16 to 32 feet per second! During this time, forceful updrafts (currents of air that are moving upwards) develop which keep any precipitation from falling. This first stage can last between ten and fifteen minutes.
The Mature Stage
By the second stage in the development of a thunderstorm, the cloud has grown to become an amazing cumulonimbus cloud. This type of cloud towers and is so tall that the top can be mostly composed of ice crystals, rain, hail, or snow. Downdrafts also begin to develop and precipitation such as showers or hail may happen along with thunder and lightning. Surface winds of varying speeds may also occur. The mature stage of a thunderstorm usually lasts between fifteen and thirty minutes.
The Dissipating Stage
During this final stage, downdrafts spread throughout the cloud and cut off the moist updrafts that are vital to the maintenance of a thunderstorm. The cloud begins to collapse as the precipitation ends. The cloud droplets eventually evaporate. The dissipating stage of a thunderstorm can last up to an hour.
While thunderstorms can produce deadly weather such as excessive rain and flooding, severe wind with speeds greater than 58 miles per hour causing damage, and large hail and tornadoes, author Mogil points out that there are also many benefits reaped from the many thunderstorms that occur daily across the planet.
- transport heat and moisture from the ground to the higher levels of the troposphere (the lowest level of the atmosphere)
- transport cooler air from high altitudes down to Earth
- bring much needed rain to many areas
- help Earth's overall electrical field remain balanced
Thunderstorms can occur individually or come together in clusters, lines, or systems and can be quite magnificent to witness.
Mogil, H. Michael. (2007). Extreme Weather. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.
Reader's Digest. Weather: New York/Montreal: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc.