CLOSE

Does the Thunderstorm "Bubble" Really Exist?

Have you ever watched a promising thunderstorm barrel toward you, only to see it fall apart or shift course at the last second? It can be frustrating to expect the cooling relief of a nice deluge—only to be left high and dry as you watch the dark clouds fade away on the horizon.

It’s common to describe this phenomenon as a “bubble,” a perceived forcefield hovering over your town that seems to deflect storms when you want them the most. There’s even an XKCD comic about it. Of course, those mythical deflectors don’t exist, but why do storms seem to consistently hit certain areas, while often skipping nearby towns?

Some local features, like large, cool bodies of water or tall mountains, really can affect how thunderstorms behave. But for the most part, a storm suddenly missing one location is mostly the result of how these bubbling masses of air and moisture evolve throughout their short lifecycle.

There are three common types of thunderstorms—single-cell, multicell (think squall lines), and supercells. The latter two categories are commonly associated with organized severe weather outbreaks. By far the most common type of thunderstorm around the world is a single-cell. This is a small, localized burst of convection often called a pop-up, popcorn, or garden-variety thunderstorm.

If there isn’t a focus point for thunderstorms to develop—something like a cold front or a sea breeze—the exact location where one of these warm weather torrents develops is usually pretty random. A storm will pop up, produce lots of lightning and heavy rain for a little while, and then start to dissipate. The cold air rushing away from the decaying storm will serve as a focus for more thunderstorms to develop nearby. Whether or not you get hit by an approaching thunderstorm depends on how healthy it is, and if any other storms form in its wake. In other words, if a storm falls apart a block away from you, it’s usually a stroke of atmospheric luck.

If you average out precipitation trends over a long period of time, the data show that rainfall is pretty evenly distributed between neighboring communities. One storm could miss you and hit the town next door, while the storm that hits you missed your neighbors down the street. It balances out with time.

However, there are some cases where certain towns benefit from their surroundings when a thunderstorm is on its way. Thunderstorms can start to weaken as they approach more stable air near cool bodies of water like the Atlantic Ocean or the Great Lakes. There is also some truth that mountains are less conducive to storms, as the rough terrain and cooler temperatures can disrupt the updraft and temporarily weaken storms as they traverse the terrain. That certainly isn’t always the case, though—there are plenty of rocking storms along the coast and in the mountains every season.

So for the most part, if a thunderstorm looks like it’s coming straight for you and then disappears into thin air, it has less to do with where you live and more to do with the fragile, fluid structure of these magnificent natural formations.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Amazon
arrow
Weather Watch
Heated Mats Keep Steps Ice-Free in the Winter
Amazon
Amazon

The first snow of the season is always exciting, but the magic can quickly run out when you remember all the hazards that come with icy conditions. Along with heating bills, frosted cars, and other pains, the ground develops a coat of ice that can be dangerous for pedestrians and drivers alike. Outdoor steps become particularly treacherous and many people find themselves clutching their railings for fear of making it to the bottom headfirst. Instead of putting salt down the next time it snows, consider a less messy approach: heated mats that quickly melt the ice away.

The handy devices are made with a thermoplastic material and can melt two inches of snow per hour. They're designed to be left outside, so you can keep them ready to go for the whole winter. The 10-by-30-inch mats fit on most standard steps and come with grips to help prevent slipping. A waterproof connector cable connects to additional mats so up to 15 steps can be covered.

Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a price: You need to buy a 120-volt power unit for them to work, and each mat is sold separately. Running at $60 a mat, the price can add up pretty quickly. Still, if you live in a colder place where it's pretty much always snowing, it might be worth it.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Weather Watch
It Just Snowed In the Sahara Desert
iStock
iStock

The Sahara isn’t always scorching. This week, a cold spell hit the town of Aïn Séfra in northern Algeria, and the world’s largest hot desert was blanketed in up to 16 inches of the white stuff in some places, The Independent reports.

The rare snowfall began early on Sunday, January 7, with the resulting precipitation melting by late afternoon. The phenomenon marked the region’s third snowfall in nearly 40 years, with other surprise wintry events occurring in February 1979 and December 2016.

Aïn Séfra is located in the Saharan Atlas Mountains in the northern Sahara Desert. Thanks to the region’s altitude, it's “not surprising that the area would see some snow if the conditions were right” a spokesperson for the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service, told The Independent. "With the setup over Europe at the moment, which has given us cold weather over the weekend, a push southwards of cold air into that region and some sort of moisture would bring that snow."

Kids enjoyed the freak snowfall, making snowmen and sledding down sand dunes, while adults had to deal with their vehicles getting stranded on icy roads, according to Forbes. By the day's end, temperatures climbed to 42°F and sand dunes returned to their ordinary brown—just long enough for residents of Aïn Séfra to experience both the highs and lows of an ordinary snow day.

[h/t The Independent]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios