Thunderstorms for Kids

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Most kids love watching heavy rain. Sometimes there is lightning accompanying the heavy rain. They inquire what the thunderstorm is and how it forms. It is all related to the water cycle and the weather conditions.

There are signs to predict a thunderstorm. One of these signs is the dark appearance of the sky. Thunderstorms have some features too. One of these features is lightning. They occur almost everywhere around the world. 

Thunderstorms do not last for a long time. However, they are dangerous. People have to prepare if a thunderstorm is predicted especially in the regions where thunderstorms are violent. There are various ways to stay safe during a thunderstorm.

What is a Thunderstorm?

A thunderstorm is a storm that involves thunder and lightning. It is sometimes called an electric storm. It usually occurs between May and September in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, it occurs between November and March. 

A thunderstorm occurs in almost every zone of the world. It’s made by a cumulonimbus cloud. It usually causes gusty winds, heavy rain and sometimes hail. It is considered ‘severe’ when it contains ¾- 1-inch hail, winds of 58 mph or higher, or even a tornado.

How Do Thunderstorms Form?

Moisture, unstable air and lift are the components of any thunderstorm. Cumulonimbus clouds are formed due to the moisture in the air. These clouds are heavy, dark, and full of rain. 

Warm, humid, unstable air quickly rises, making the clouds develop bigger and higher. The unstable air is left and rises even higher. If the three components are mixed, then there is a thunderstorm.

The Three Stages of a Thunderstorm

The life cycle of a thunderstorm occurs in three stages. The three stages are as follows: the cumulus stage, the mature cumulus stage, and the dissipating stage. Each stage has its features. Let’s check the characteristics of each one.

The cumulus stage

During the day, the sun makes the surface of the Earth warm. As a result, heated air rises upward which is called updraft. The more the sun heats the Earth’s surface, the warmer the air becomes. Since hot air is lighter than cool air, it rises.

In the existence of wet air, heated air condenses, causing a cumulus cloud to form. The non-stopping expansion of clouds will be supported as long as warm air beneath the clouds continues to rise.

Mature stage

This is a serious stage. As the cumulus cloud grows in size, its water becomes more visible and heavier. The rising air becomes too strong, and raindrops starts to fall through the cloud. 

As the rain starts to fall through into the clouds, cool, dry air starts to creep the cloud. This is called the downdraft phenomenon. The phenomenon develops if warm air is lighter than cool air, resulting in the cool air falling into the cloud. 

The downdraft pulls heavy water downwards, causing rain. This atmosphere produces a cumulonimbus cloud because of the updraft, downdraft, and rain. The cumulonimbus turns into a thunderstorm cell.

Dissipating stage

It is the final stage. Thunderstorms generally disappear after 30 minutes. Whenever downdrafts dominate the cloud’s updraft, the updraft disappears. The warm moist air can’t rise anymore.

Since the warm moist air can no longer rise because of this downdraft dominance, cloud droplets will stop forming. The storm will disappear when the cloud evaporates from top to bottom.

Thunderstorm Analysis

There are three types of thunderstorms, categorized by their structure. These types are as follows: single-cell thunderstorm, multi-cell thunderstorm and supercell thunderstorm. 

Single-cell thunderstorm

Single-cell storms are thunderstorms created by just one convection cell in the atmosphere. Most of these thunderstorms are small, lasting for about an hour. They are also called ordinary thunderstorms.

These storms are often created during the summer season and include towering cumulonimbus clouds that can develop 12 kilometres high in the atmosphere. Rain and lightning are popular. Sometimes hail drops.

Multi-cell Thunderstorms

Some thunderstorms are composed of many convection cells moving as a single unit. They are called multi-cell thunderstorms. Often the convection cells are organized as a cluster, with each cell at a different stage of the thunderstorm cycle. 

A squall line is often formed by multi-cell thunderstorms if they are along a cold or warm front. The squall line can reach up to 600 miles (1000 km) long. Strong wind gusts often blow just before the storm.

Where Do Thunderstorms Occur Most Often?

  • Thunderstorms most often form within areas located at mid-latitude where warm moist air front hits and border cool air fronts.
  • Thunderstorms are quite rare in Alaska, New England, North Dakota, Montana, and other northern states where the air is commonly cold.
  • Thunderstorms are also commonly rare along the Pacific Coast because the summertime air there is quite dry.
  • Florida‘s Gulf Coast suffers the greatest number of thunderstorms than any of the U.S. locations.
  • Thunderstorms typically occur 130 days per year in Florida.
  • Thunderstorms typically occur 60–90 days per year in the Gulf Coast.
  • Thunderstorms typically occur 50–80 days per year in the mountains of New Mexico.
  •  Thunderstorms typically occur 20 to 60 days per year in Central Europe and Asia. 

Thunderstorm Diagram

thunderstorms LearningMole

What is Lightning?

thunderstorms LearningMole

Lightning is a powerful electrical current made during a thunderstorm. The electric current is very hot and makes the air around it expand very fast, which in turn causes thunder. Sometimes it happens on the cloud level, or it goes to the ground.

Water drops and ice particles inside a cloud hold electrical charges. Some of these electrical charges are positive while others are negative. Lightning occurs usually when a lot of negative charges develop in a cloud. 

To make these negative charges balanced, positive charges form under the cloud on the ground. Since opposite charges attract, the negative charges in the cloud want to unite with the positive charges on the ground.

It is difficult for the charges to unite because electricity does not move smoothly through the air. As the cloud develops, the strength of the charges develops too. Finally, the charges dominate the air and the cloud unleashes a powerful, negatively charged electrical current.

Since the negative current moves toward the ground, a positively charged current skips from the ground to meet it. When the currents unite, a bright flash is created that moves back up toward the cloud. This is a lightning spark. This process repeats until all the negative charges in the cloud are used.

A spark can reach 5 miles long. It would take up to 80 million car batteries to match the power of one thunderbolt. A single lightning flash has enough power to light a 100-watt bulb for three months!

The speed of light is faster than that of sound. This is the reason why we usually see lightning before we hear the thunder. To know how far away the lightning storm is from you, count the seconds between the flash and the sound. Observe the flash of lightning. Time how long it is before you hear the crack of the thunder. Divide the number of seconds -the time difference- by 5. The solution is the relative number of miles away.

For example, if the thunder rumbles 20 seconds after the lightning flash, then it is about 4 miles away. Math: 20 seconds / 5 = 4 miles.

What is Thunder?

Thunder is the terrifying crack you hear after a lightning flash. The lightning flash heats the air around it so fast. As a result, the air expands very fast. Then, it makes a shock current in the air. That current is the thunder you hear.

Thunder makes a very loud noise because the amount of electrical energy that releases from the cloud to the ground is so big. Since Light travels faster than sound, you see lightning first. When the time difference between lightning and thunder is so short this means the lightning is closed to the ground.

There are different sounds for thunder, it can be like a deafening bag when you stand in a close place where the lightning hits the ground. It can also be a cracking sound when the air cools and shrinks. It can sound like a low grumble if the air keeps on shaking from the lightning bolt. 

Damages Caused by Thunderstorms

  • Rainfall from thunderstorms results in flash flooding which kills a lot of people every year.
  • Lightning is the reason for many fires around the world each year and causes huge losses.
  • Hail in big size damages cars and windows, and kills farm animals left out in the open.
  • Strong straight-line winds, about 120 mph or more, connected to thunderstorms strike down trees, power lines and landlines. 
  • Thunderstorms can result in tornadoes which are one of the most destructive forces. They can cause major damages to infrastructure and buildings

Advantages of Thunderstorms

  • Thunderstorms cause rainfalls which provide plants, humans, lakes and reservoirs with water. 
  • A thunderstorm functions as a cooling tool for the earth. Without it, the percentage of heat in the atmosphere would significantly increase, which becomes negative for the living creature.
  • Lightning releases Nitrogen which is one of the most important elements for farming. Lightning turns the nitrogen gas into nitrogen compounds which benefit the fertility of the soil.
  • Thunderstorms help in clearing a huge amount of pollution from the atmosphere. They clean the air providing us with fresh air.
  • We enjoy watching the fantastic spectacle of a rainbow after a thunderstorm.
  • Lightning caused by thunderstorms helps maintain the electrical balance between the earth and the atmosphere.

Some useful tips to Stay Safe

  • When you hear the crack of thunder, go to a safe place immediately.
  • The perfect place to go is a strong building or a car, but make sure to close all the windows in the car.
  • If there is no safe place to go to, stay away from trees.
  • If you are a group of people, stay about 15 feet from each other.
  • Stay away from water. It’s a perfect conductor of electricity.
  • Any water sport is not safe during a thunderstorm.
  • Stay away from any metal.
  • It’s better not to use a landline phone because lightning may hit exterior phone lines.
  • Do not use electric equipment like home appliances.

Some Interesting Facts about Thunderstorms

  • There are three types of thunderstorms: single-cell, multi-cell cluster, and supercell.
  • The diameter of the average thunderstorm measures around 15 miles. 
  • The average thunderstorm holds 13.2 million gallons of water vapor into the Earth’s atmosphere and unleashes a tremendous amount of energy. 
  • Thunderstorms pass by three stages: developing stage, mature stage and dissipation stage.
  • Thunderstorms need three components to form: moisture, a lift mechanism and unstable rising air.
  • Winter thunderstorm causes snow instead of rain as precipitation, but will still cause thunder and lightning.
  • There are an average of 16 million thunderstorms across the globe every year.
  • Thunderstorms don’t just happen on Earth, they’ve been noticed on other planets like Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn and Venus.
  • Some thunderstorms are violent enough to produce tornadoes.
  • Thunderstorms can cause winds as fast as 300 mph.
  • Lightning is considered the most dangerous feature of a thunderstorm.
  • Thunderstorms have some advantages like cooling the earth.
  • For safety indoors, a person has to be away from any electrical appliances and water.
  • For safety outdoors, a person has to be away from trees and water.

Thunderstorm Experiment

ٍSupplies needed:

  • Plastic containers
  • Food colouring (red and blue)
  • Ice cube tray
  • Some room-temperatured water


1. Add water into the ice cube tray.

2. Add one drop of blue food colouring to each section.

3. Stick it in the freezer.

4. Fill in the plastic container with room temperature water.

5. Take a couple of the blue ice cubes and put them on one side of the clean container at the same time put drops of red food colouring to the other side of the container. 

6. The cold front is now represented by the blue food colouring, the warm air is represented by the red food colouring.

7. The warm air is forced to rise over the colder air which finally caused the thunderstorm.

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Thunderstorms occur everywhere in the world when there is unstable air, moisture and a lift. They most probably happen in summer and spring. Although thunderstorms have destructive effects, they have good effects too. Lightning and thunder are some of the characteristics of thunderstorms. 

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