What Causes a Thunderstorm?

Thunderstorms are formed by the combination of three main ingredients: moisture, unstable atmospheric air and an external acting force making the damp and volatile air rise upward. Thunderstorms come in several different categories, which are orographic, air mass and frontal. They form above land and sea, varying in duration and intensity.

The physical geography and local atmospheric conditions of land regions play a part in the formation of storms. Thunderstorms forming over mountainous regions classify as orographic storms. Air mass thunderstorms arise following the formation of local air convections. These convections exist as pockets of unstable air, and form storms quickly. Frontal thunderstorms develop from fronts. The volatile air in warm and cold fronts, combined with strong winds and moist air, makes conditions ripe for storm generation.

In all types, warm, rising air from the Earth enters the atmosphere. Cooling water vapor then releases heat and forms storm clouds. Lastly, clouds rise upwards into freezing air, producing ice particles. These particles release and gather electrical charges, producing the sights and sounds of lightning and thunder.

Regardless of size and intensity, thunderstorms undergo a life cycle, starting with the developing stage, then peaking in size and intensity during the mature stage, and finally weakening and dissolving during the dissipating stage.