thunder, sound produced along a path of a lightning flash, caused by the rapid heating and expansion of the adjacent air. Rolling thunder occurs either as a result of the time difference between sounds from the far and near end of a flash, or when mountains, layers of air, or other obstructions cause reverberations. Since sound travels about 1 mi in 5 sec, the distance between a lightning flash and an observer may be determined by counting the seconds between the flash and the thunder. Thunder as far distant as 10 to 15 mi (15 to 25 km) from an observer is usually not heard, even though lightning is often seen. See thunderstorm.

Thunder is the sound made by lightning. Depending on the nature of the lightning and distance of the listener, it can range from a sharp, loud crack to a long, low rumble. The sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air surrounding and within a bolt of lightning. In turn, this expansion of air creates a sonic shock wave which produces the sound of thunder.


The cause of thunder has been the subject of centuries of speculation and scientific inquiry. The first recorded theory is attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the third century BC, and an early speculation was that it was caused by the collision of clouds. Subsequently, numerous other theories have been proposed. By the mid-19th century, the accepted theory was that lightning produced a vacuum. In the 20th century a consensus evolved that thunder must begin with a shock wave in the air due to the sudden thermal expansion of the plasma in the lightning channel. In a fraction of a second the air is heated to a temperature approaching 28,000 °C (50,000 °F). This heating causes it to expand outward, plowing into the surrounding cooler air at a speed faster than sound would travel in that cooler air. The outward-moving pulse that results is a shock wave, similar in principle to the shock wave formed by an explosion, or at the front of a supersonic aircraft. More recently, this consensus has been eroded by the observation that measured overpressures in simulated lightning are greater than what could be achieved by the amount of heating found. Alternative proposals rely on electrodynamic effects of the massive current acting on the plasma in the bolt of lightning.


The d in Modern English thunder (from earlier Old English þunor) is epenthetic, and is now found as well in Modern Dutch donder, , (cp Middle Dutch donre, and Old Norse þorr, Old Frisian þuner, Old High German donar descended from Proto-Germanic *þunraz). In Latin the term was tonare "to thunder" (see also tornado). The name of the Germanic god Thor comes from the Old Norse word for thunder.

The shared Proto-Indo-European root is Appendix:List_of_Proto-Indo-European_roots#t.

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Calculating distance

A flash of lightning, followed after some seconds by a rumble of thunder is, for many people, the first illustration of the fact that sound travels more slowly than light. Using this difference, one can estimate how far away the bolt of lightning is by timing the interval between seeing the flash and hearing thunder. The speed of sound in dry air is approximately 343 m/s or 1,127 feet per second or at 68°F (20 °C). The speed of light is high enough that it can be taken as infinite in this calculation. Therefore, the lightning is approximately one kilometer distant for every 2.9 seconds (or one mile for every 4.6 seconds). In the same five seconds the light could have circled the globe 37 times. Thunder is seldom heard at distances over 24 kilometers (15 miles). A flash of lightning and a simultaneous sharp "clap!" of thunder, a thunderclap, therefore indicates that the lightning strike was very near.

Fear of thunder

Fear of thunder is known as astraphobia.

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