Cumulonimbus clouds usually form from cumulus clouds at a much lower height, thus making them, like cumulus clouds, grow vertically instead of horizontally, thus giving the cumulonimbus its mushroom shape. The base of a cumulonimbus can be several miles across, and it can be tall enough to occupy middle as well as low altitudes; though formed at an altitude of about 3,000 to 4,000 meters (10,000 to 12,000 feet), its peak can reach up to 23,000 meters (75,000 feet) in extreme cases. Typically, it peaks at a much lower height (usually up to 5,000 meters / 16,500 feet).. Well-developed cumulonimbus clouds are also characterized by a flat, anvil-like top (anvil dome), caused by straight line winds at the higher altitudes which shear off the top of the cloud, as well as by an inversion over the thunderstorm caused by rising temperatures above the tropopause. This anvil shape can precede the main cloud structure for many miles, causing anvil lightning.
Cumulonimbus clouds can be subdivided into several species:
Cumulonimbus storm cells can produce heavy rain (particularly of a convective nature) and flash flooding, as well as straight-line winds. Most storm cells die after about 20 minutes, when the precipitation causes more downdraft than updraft, causing the energy to dissipate. If there is enough solar energy in the atmosphere, however (on a hot summer's day, for example), the moisture from one storm cell can evaporate rapidly — resulting in a new cell forming just a few miles from the former one. This can cause thunderstorms to last for several hours. This multicell cloud structure exists until cold downdraft preceding cumulonimbus at ground level flows before cloud at distance sufficient to disrupt updraft (5-10 kilometers). From this moment on, cumulonimbus cloud quickly degrades and dissipates, forming cirrus spissatus, dense anvil-like cirrus, stratocumulus diurnalis or stratocumulus vesperalis.
Cumulonimbus clouds sometimes form mammatus clouds.
Cumulonimbus clouds contain severe convection currents, with very high, unpredictable winds, particularly in the vertical plane (updrafts and downdrafts). They are therefore extremely dangerous to aircraft. Smaller, propeller-driven planes cannot cope with the conditions and must fly around them; larger jet aircraft fly over the smaller ones and around larger examples. Larger planes are also equipped with weather radar and wind shear detectors to help guide them through, in the event that they need to pass through such clouds to land. They also can snow because they are also in the higher part of the atmosphere.