Lightning and Thunderstorms

Lightning Storm

A thunderstorm is a rain shower during which you hear thunder. Since thunder comes from lightning, all thunderstorms have lightning. In the United States, an average of 300 people are injured and 80 people are killed each year by 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) or;
  • a tornado.

Prepare For A Thunderstorm


Thunderstorms pose risks from lightening, flooding or tornadoes.

Familiarize yourself with the terms that are used to identify a thunderstorm:

                     A thunderstorm watch means a thunderstorm is possible in your area. You should monitor your weather radio or local radio and television news outlets for the latest information.
                    A thunderstorm warning is when a thunderstorm is actually occurring, take shelter immediately. Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property to those in the path of the storm.

Plan To Take Shelter

    When a thunderstorm warning is issued for St. Louis County, or if you see a funnel cloud. Take shelter immediately.

    We may not immediately be able to provide information on what is happening and what you should do. However, you should listen to your weather radio, watch TV, listen to the radio or check the Internet often for official news and instructions as they become available.

    Stay in the shelter location until the danger has passed.

    Should you lose power during or after a severe storm and plan on using a generator, be sure to follow generator safety tips to keep you, your family and others safe.

Stay Informed

    After a thunderstorm be sure to remain out of damaged buildings and stay clear of downed power lines.

    Help injured or trapped people. Check on others who may require special assistance, such as the elderly, children and people with disabilities.

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.


What Causes Lightning?

The creation of lightning is a complicated process. We generally know what conditions are needed to produce lightning, but there is still debate about exactly how lightning forms.The exact way a cloud builds up the electrical charges that lead to lightning is not completely understood. Precipitation and convection theories both attempt to explain the electrical structure within clouds. Precipitation theorists suppose that different size raindrops, hail, and graupel (small white ice particles that fall as precipitation and break apart easily when they land on a surface - also called soft hail or snow pellets) get their positive or negative charge as they collide, with heavier particles carrying negative charge to the cloud bottom. Convection theorists believe that updrafts transport positive charges near the ground upward through the cloud while downdrafts carry negative charges downward. What follows is a summary of what we know.

Thunderstorms have very turbulent environments - strong updrafts and downdrafts occur often and close together. The updrafts carry small liquid water droplets from the lower regions of the storm to heights between 35,000 and 70,000 feet - miles above the freezing level. At the same time, downdrafts are transporting hail and ice from the frozen upper parts of the storm. When these particles collide, the water droplets freeze and release heat. This heat keeps the surface of the hail and ice slightly warmer than its surrounding environment, and a soft hail, or graupel forms.

When this graupel collides with additional water droplets and ice particles, a key process occurs involving electrical charge: negatively charged electrons are sheared off the rising particles and collect on the falling particles. The result is a storm cloud that is negatively charged at its base, and positively charged at the top.

Opposite charges attract one another. As the positive and negative areas grow more distinct within the cloud, an electric field is created between the oppositely-charged thunderstorm base and its top. The farther apart these regions are, the stronger the field and the stronger the attraction between the charges. But we cannot forget that the atmosphere is a very good insulator that inhibits electric flow. So, a HUGE amount of charge has to build up before the strength of the electric field overpowers the atmosphere's insulating properties. A current of electricity forces a path through the air until it encounters something that makes a good connection. The current is discharged as a stroke of lightning.

While all this is happening inside the storm, beneath the storm, positive charge begins to pool within the surface of the earth. This positive charge will shadow the storm wherever it goes, and is responsible for cloud-to-ground lightning. However, the electric field within the storm is much stronger than the one between the storm base and the earth's surface, so about 75-80% of lightning occurs within the storm cloud.

What Causes Thunder?

Lightning causes thunder. Thunder is the sound caused by rapidly expanding gases along a channel of lightning discharge. Energy from lightning heats the air to around 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes a rapid expansion of the air, creating a sound wave heard as thunder. An initial tearing sound is usually caused by the stepped leader, and the sharp click or crack heard at a very close range, just before the main crash of thunder, is caused by the ground streamer.

Thunder is rarely heard at points farther than 15 miles from the lightning discharge, but occasionally can be heard up to 25 miles away. At these distances, thunder is heard as more of a low rumbling sound because the higher frequency pitches are more easily absorbed by the surrounding environment, and the sound waves set off by the lightning discharge have different arrival times.


The Thunderstorm Lifecycle

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

Thunderstorm Lifecycle

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.