Stages of a thunderstorm's life.
Warm air has a lower density than cool air, so warmer air rises upwards and cooler air will settle at the bottom (this effect can be seen with a hot air balloon). Clouds form as relatively warmer air, carrying moisture, rises within cooler air. The moist air rises, and, as it does so, it cools and some of the water vapor in that rising air condenses. When the moisture condenses, it releases energy known as latent heat of condensation, which allows the rising packet of air to cool less than the cooler surrounding air continuing the cloud's ascension. If enough instability is present in the atmosphere, this process will continue long enough for cumulonimbus clouds to form and produce lightning and thunder. Meteorological indices such as convective available potential energy (CAPE) and the lifted index can be used to assist in determining potential upward vertical development of clouds. Generally, thunderstorms require three conditions to form:
- An unstable airmass
- A lifting force (heat)
All thunderstorms, regardless of type, go through three stages: the developing stage, the mature stage, and the dissipation stage. The average thunderstorm has a 24 km (15 mi) diameter. Depending on the conditions present in the atmosphere, each of these three stages take an average of 30 minutes.
The first stage of a thunderstorm is the cumulus stage or developing stage. During this stage, masses of moisture are lifted upwards into the atmosphere. The trigger for this lift can be solar illumination, where the heating of the ground produces thermals, or where two winds converge forcing air upwards, or where winds blow over terrain of increasing elevation. The moisture carried upward cools into liquid drops of water due to lower temperatures at high altitude, which appear as cumulus clouds. As the water vapor condenses into liquid, latent heat is released, which warms the air, causing it to become less dense than the surrounding, drier air. The air tends to rise in an updraft through the process of convection (hence the term convective precipitation). This process creates a low-pressure zone within and beneath the forming thunderstorm. In a typical thunderstorm, approximately 500 million kilograms of water vapor are lifted into the Earth's atmosphere.
Anvil-shaped thundercloud in the mature stage
In the mature stage of a thunderstorm, the warmed air continues to rise until it reaches an area of warmer air and can rise no farther. Often this 'cap' is the tropopause. The air is instead forced to spread out, giving the storm a characteristic anvil shape. The resulting cloud is called cumulonimbus incus. The water droplets coalesce into larger and heavier droplets and freeze to become ice particles. As these fall, they melt to become rain. If the updraft is strong enough, the droplets are held aloft long enough to become so large that they do not melt completely but fall as hail. While updrafts are still present, the falling rain drags the surrounding air with it, creating downdrafts as well. The simultaneous presence of both an updraft and a downdraft marks the mature stage of the storm and produces cumulonimbus clouds. During this stage, considerable internal turbulence can occur within, which manifests as strong winds, severe lightning, and even tornadoes.
Typically, if there is little wind shear, the storm will rapidly enter the dissipating stage and 'rain itself out', but, if there is sufficient change in wind speed or direction, the downdraft will be separated from the updraft, and the storm may become a supercell, where the mature stage can sustain itself for several hours.
A thunderstorm in an environment with no winds to shear the storm or blow the anvil in any one direction
In the dissipation stage, the thunderstorm is dominated by the downdraft. If atmospheric conditions do not support super cellular development, this stage occurs rather quickly, approximately 20–30 minutes into the life of the thunderstorm. The downdraft will push down out of the thunderstorm, hit the ground and spread out. This phenomenon is known as a downburst. The cool air carried to the ground by the downdraft cuts off the inflow of the thunderstorm, the updraft disappears and the thunderstorm will dissipate. Thunderstorms in an atmosphere with virtually no vertical wind shear weaken as soon as they send out an outflow boundary in all directions, which then quickly cuts off its inflow of relatively warm, moist air, and kills the thunderstorm's further growth. The downdraft hitting the ground creates an outflow boundary. This can cause downbursts, a potential hazardous condition for aircraft to fly through, as a substantial change in wind speed and direction occurs, resulting in a decrease of airspeed and the subsequent reduction in lift for the aircraft. The stronger the outflow boundary is, the stronger the resultant vertical wind shear becomes.