Q:

How does thunder form?

A:

In its simplest form, thunder is the result of a shockwave that breaks the sound barrier. Thunder forms as the air around a bolt of lightning becomes superheated and explodes, producing a shockwave. This shockwave travels faster than the speed of sound, which produces a sonic boom, just as a fighter jet does when it travels faster than the speed of sound.

Thunder forms nearly instantaneously with lightning. However, because lighting travels at the speed of light and thunder travels at the speed of sound, the two are not perceived simultaneously. The difference between the time at which an individual sees lightning and hears the accompanying thunder is related to the distance between the observer and the lightning bolt. The difference in time between the two events can be used to determine distance from the storm.

To determine distance, an observer can time the seconds between a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder and then divide this figure by five to yield the distance to the lightning bolt in miles. For instance, if there is a 10-second delay between the lightning and thunder, the lightning bolt was approximately two miles away. Likewise, the movement of the storm can be determined by performing this calculation several times in succession. If the time between the lightning and thunder increases, the storm is moving away from the observer.

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Related Questions

  • Q:

    Where does thunder come from?

    A:

    Thunder comes from the rapid movement of air in a lightning bolt. Due of the speed at which lightning bolts travel, the surrounding air does not have enough time to expand. This compressed air creates a shock wave similar to an explosion, causing thunder.

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  • Q:

    Can you have thunder without lightning?

    A:

    Thunder is caused by lightning, so it cannot happen independently. The loud cracking sound of thunder occurs when lightning raises the surrounding air temperature by thousands of degrees, causing it to rapidly expand and compress, according to SciJinks.

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  • Q:

    What comes first: thunder or lightning?

    A:

    Though it is theoretically possible to hear thunder and then see lightning, lightning actually causes thunder, so it has to come first. Thunder is the noise that's caused by the sound of the rapid expansion of air that gets suddenly heated by a bolt of lightning.

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  • Q:

    What is the difference between thunder and lightning?

    A:

    The difference between thunder and lightning is that lightning is electromagnetic energy and thunder is sonic energy. Lightning actually causes thunder by rapidly heating and expanding the air around the path of the strike, explains a Library of Congress website.

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