11 Booming Facts About Thunderstorms

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Thunderstorms can inspire the entire range of human emotion with their vivid displays of nature's fury. Storms are used to set an ominous tone in spooky stories, even as they bring much-needed relief to parched fields or distressed humans on a hot day. These torrents are as fascinating to study as they are to watch, and as common as they are, they're actually quite complex.

1. WHAT GOES UP …

Warm, moist air is the fuel that feeds a thunderstorm the energy it needs to survive. A column of warm air quickly rising through the atmosphere is known as an updraft, and these upward winds can pack a punch. The strength of an updraft depends on how great the temperature difference is between different levels of the atmosphere. An updraft can exceed 100 mph in the strongest thunderstorms.

2. THE TOP OF THE STORM GETS SMOOSHED.

An updraft will continue skyward until the rising air is no longer warmer than the air around it. The rising air spreads out at this point, creating flat, anvil-like clouds that make a distant thunderstorm such a spectacular sight. Even more stunning are mammatus clouds, bubble-shaped formations that can develop along the bottom of anvils. Due to the strength of the storm needed to produce these vivid formations, they're often associated with severe thunderstorms.

3. RAIN DRAGS A STORM DOWN.

Once the weight of the raindrops suspended in a budding thunderstorm grows too heavy for the updraft to hold, or once raindrops fall out of the sides of the updraft, they begin falling to the ground as precipitation. The falling rain drags cooler air toward the ground, creating a downdraft, or that cool breeze you feel before and during a storm. Most downdrafts are pretty weak, but some are strong enough to cause damaging winds at the surface. A thunderstorm dies once the cool air of the downdraft cuts off the flow of warm air to the updraft, starving the storm and causing it to rain itself out.

4. THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF THUNDERSTORMS.

Not all thunderstorms are the same. There are three main types of thunderstorms. Most thunderstorms are single-cell, or a storm that pulses up, rains for half an hour, and dissipates. When that storm collapses, the wind from its downdraft can trigger more storms in a chain reaction. There are also multi-cell thunderstorms, the most common of which are squall lines. The third type of storm is a supercell, or a thunderstorm that has a rotating updraft. The twisting updraft helps supercells survive for many hours and produce more severe weather—larger hail, higher winds, and stronger tornadoes—than a normal thunderstorm.

5. HAIL BOUNCES AROUND LIKE POPCORN.

If temperatures are just right in the middle of a thunderstorm, some of the raindrops will begin to freeze as they bounce around in the updraft. The up-down motion of the newly formed hailstone will cause more liquid to accumulate on the outside of the stone, a process that causes hailstones to grow in layers like an onion. The vast majority of hail isn't large enough to cause any damage, but the updrafts in some thunderstorms are so intense that they can support hailstones the size of softballs or larger.

6. THUNDERSTORMS ARE ELECTRIFYING.

The friction between ice crystals, raindrops, and hailstones moving around in a storm can cause an electrostatic buildup between the clouds and the ground that releases its energy in a brilliant flash of lightning. Lightning is hotter than the surface of the Sun, heating the air up so fast that the shockwave radiates out in a sonic boom we hear as thunder. All thunder is caused by lightning, and all lightning causes thunder. There's no such thing as "heat lightning," a term used to describe lightning seen in the distance not accompanied by thunder. This phenomenon is simply lightning that occurs too far away for you to hear the thunder.

7. STORMS ARE PRETTY HEAVY.

Water is heavy. We look at clouds floating effortlessly through the sky and don't think about the sheer amount of weight hanging above our heads. One cumulus cloud can weigh more than 1 million pounds. When it comes to a billowing thunderstorm, though, the weight can go up tremendously depending on how much rain it's holding. We're lucky the rain doesn't all fall at once.

8. THEY BLOCK OUT THE SUN.

All of that water looming above us also has the effect of blotting out the sun. The sky gets dark before a thunderstorm because the sunshine can't make it through the vast column of water in an especially wet thunderstorm. The much-feared green sky before a storm, often thought to presage a tornado, is usually caused by sunlight refracting through both heavy rain and hailstones.

9. HUMANS CAN ACCIDENTALLY CAUSE THEM.

Humans can't control the weather, but our actions can indirectly influence where thunderstorms form. Studies have shown that increased temperatures in and around cities, due to the urban heat island effect, can trigger thunderstorms that wouldn't have otherwise formed in these areas if the city and its streets weren't there. There's also some evidence that unstable air warmed by steam released by the cooling stacks of nuclear power plants can trigger small storms.

10. IT CAN THUNDER WHEN IT'S SNOWING.

Thunder doesn't only happen when it's raining. Intense bands of snow can develop during blizzards and lake effect snow events in much the same way that a regular thunderstorm would form when it's warm out. These strong bands can produce lightning and loud cracks of thunder all while dumping copious amounts of snow in a short period of time.

11. YES, IT CAN RAIN FROGS.

There's some truth to the myth that it can rain frogs, fish, and other odd objects. If a strong tornado lofts debris high into a storm, that debris has to fall down somewhere. If a tornado sucks the water out of a pond, for example, it's very possible that the critters that used to be in the water will fall on populated areas. Hail can also form embedded with small pieces of debris like tree branches as the debris serves as a nucleus around which the water can freeze.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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