How Thunderstorms Develop

This is an excerpt from the article “Lightning: What You Need to Know”. For more info, please visit www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov.


All thunderstorms go through stages of growth, development, electrification, and dissipation. Thunderstorms often begin to develop early in the day when the sun heats the air near the ground and pockets of warmer air start to rise in the atmosphere. When these pockets of air reach a certain level in the atmosphere, cumulus clouds start to form. Continued heating causes these clouds to grow vertically into the atmosphere. These “towering cumulus” clouds may be one of the first signs of a developing thunderstorm. The final stage of development occurs as the top of the cloud becomes anvil-shaped.

As a thunderstorm cloud grows, precipitation forms within the cloud. A well-developed thunderstorm cloud contains mostly small ice crystals in the upper levels of the cloud, a mixture of small ice crystals and small hail in the middle levels of the cloud, and a mixture of rain and melting hail in the lower levels of the cloud.

Air movements and collisions between the various types of precipitation in the middle of the cloud cause the precipitation particles to become charged. The lighter ice crystals become positively charged and are carried upward into the upper part of the storm by rising air. The heavier hail becomes negatively charged and is either suspended by the rising air or falls toward the lower part of the storm. These collisions and air movements cause the top of the thunderstorm cloud to become positively charged and the middle and lower part of the storm to become negatively charged.

In addition, a small positive charge develops near the bottom of the thunderstorm cloud. The negative charge in the middle of thunderstorm cloud causes the ground underneath to become
positively charged, and the positively charged anvil
causes the ground under the anvil to become negatively charged.

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