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How Thunderstorms Form


It's not officially summer yet, but thunderstorms are popping up all over the US.

It doesn't matter whether you fly a Cessna 172 or a Boeing 787, thunderstorms can quickly ground you or send you hundreds of miles off your planned route. And out of all of the weather you study as a pilot, thunderstorms are the most emphasized, because they affect your flight more than just about anything else.

You probably know that thunderstorms require three ingredients to form: moisture, instability, and a lifting action. But what exactly does that mean, and how does that affect your average spring or summer thunderstorm?

Airmass thunderstorms are the most common storm you'll encounter. In the summer, they form almost daily all over the United States, and they often last less than an hour. They start with a towering cumulus shooting upward, then a rain shaft dropping down, and an anvil forming.

But how does it get started?

Instability Is What You Need

Instability is the key to a thunderstorm's growth, because instability describes what happens to the air once it rises.

For example, if you pushed air up from the surface several thousand feet, would it continue rising, stay level, or drop back down? If it continues rising, it's unstable.

So what causes the air to continue rising? Density. Colder air is denser than warm air. And if you have a bubble of warm air surrounded by colder air, it floats up, just like a hot air balloon.

How The Lapse Rate Affects Instability

As you climb, the air temperature cools. On a standard day, the temperature cools 3 degrees Celsius for every 1,000 feet you climb in dry air (this is the dry adiabatic lapse rate).

But, on an actual day, that rate varies. It may decrease faster than 3 degrees per 1,000 feet. It could decrease slower than 3 degrees if the air is moist, or, instead of getting colder, it could get warmer, which is called a temperature inversion. (In flying, we use an ISA lapse rate of 2 degrees per thousand feet as an average.)

Look at the day below in the chart: the air at the surface is 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit). But as you climb, the air temperature decreases 4 degrees Celsius per thousand feet, faster than the standard lapse rate.

Now, let's take some air from the surface and lift it up 1,000 feet. Let's say the air hasn't reached the saturation point yet, meaning the air's relative humidity is still under 100% and the moisture hasn't condensed into a cloud. As you lift this parcel of air, it will cool, but not necessarily as fast as the air around it.

At 1,000 feet, the air you've raised is warmer than the air around it. So, what will happen? It will keep rising. In fact, it will keep rising until it's the same temperature as the air around it.

When the temperature in the atmosphere decreases faster than 3 degrees Celsius per thousand feet, the atmosphere's absolutely unstable. This means that any time you lift up air from the surface, it will be warmer than the air around it, and it will continue to rise.

What could cause the air to rise? On a hot summer day, surface heating from the sun. Thermals, the light to moderate turbulence you feel when flying on a summer afternoon, are a perfect way for the air to rise quickly.

What Happens When You Add Moisture?

In the example above, you saw what happens when you lift dry air in an unstable atmosphere. But, to create a thunderstorm, the air needs to have moisture. So, what happens if you lift air that has moisture?

As you lift air from the surface, it cools. The temperature keeps dropping and approaching the air's dew point. Once it hits the dew point, moisture starts to condense out of the air, forming clouds. This altitude is the convective condensation level. It's the lowest altitude that condensation occurs because of convection from surface heating.

Check out the cumulous clouds in the picture below. Notice how all of the bases are flat, and start about the same altitude? That's approximately the convective condensation level.

As moisture condenses out of the air, it releases energy. (It takes energy to turn water into a gas, and that energy releases as heat as the gas condenses back into water.) Now your parcel of air is actually cooling less than 3 degrees Celsius per thousand feet, because moist air cools more slowly than dry air.

How fast does it cool? That depends on the air's temperature. Warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air, and the amount of water the air can hold decreases as the temperature decreases. Check out the chart below:

Now that moisture is condensing out of the lifted air, it's much warmer than the surrounding air. As it rises, that temperature gap grows, and the air continues to accelerate upward, forming a strong updraft. This creates a towering cumulus cloud, or TCU. And with that, you have the developing stage of a thunderstorm.

How High Will The Thunderstorm Go?

The updraft will continue to rise until its temperature matches the temperature of the air around it. This is known as the equilibrium level. In fact, it typically climbs a little higher, due to the inertia from its upward speed.

In an unstable atmosphere, an updraft can even climb up through the troposphere, into the tropopause or stratosphere, where the air temperature starts to increase with altitude. As the updraft slows down, it flattens out, resulting in the anvil and flat top you see on a mature or dissipating thunderstorm.

Moisture, lifting action, and instability are the three ingredients you need for a thunderstorm to form. The more unstable the atmosphere is, the more likely air is to accelerate up once it's lifted, and form a thunderstorm.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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