Aerial Views

Big Thunderstorm-Mama over Nebraska

How do thunderstorms form?

UPDATED March 21, 2019

Thunderstorms are prevalent during summer-flying. These huge buildups of clouds bring turbulence and other weather hazards along.

In the U.S. the Midwest and the South is particularly subject to violent thunderstorms.

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Your pilots will always circumnavigate these clouds at a safe distance to best prevent your flight from becoming unpleasant and to ensure the safety of flight.

How do thunderstorms form?

Cumulonimbus clouds quickly become thunderstorm cells. What’s needed is an updraft, a downdraft, and rain.

A thunderstorm cell has thunder and lightning and heavy rain.

How long do thunderstorms last?

That depends on whether an ordinary thunderstorm or a supercell thunderstorm is building.

a. An ordinary thunderstorm

These type thunderstorms begin to dissipate already after 30 minutes or so. In general the duration of such type thunderstorms last about one hour total.

b. A super-cell thunderstorm

A super-cell thunderstorm is simply one mean “mama”. They are much larger than ordinary thunderstorms, and they hit with a lot more power.

The duration of such storms can last for several hours.

Thunderstorm formations consist of three cycles:

1. The first stage is called the Cumulus Stage

During the day the sun heats the surface of the earth, which in turn makes the air warmer at the earth-level.

Warm air is lighter than cold air. Warmer air will rise towards the colder air, creating an updraft.

You need moisture mixed in with the air for a cloud to form.

The moist air condenses into a cloud. That cloud will keep growing as long as you have warm air from below that continues to rise and move upward into the sky.

2. Stage two is called the Mature Stage

As the cumulus cloud becomes very big the water quantity inside the cloud also becomes heavy and large.

Raindrops will start falling as soon as the rising air is no longer able to hold the water in the cloud.

As this is going on, cold and dry air begins to enter the cloud.

We already talked about how warm air is lighter than cold air…

So, when the heavier cold air enters the cloud, descending into the cloud of warm air, a downdraft occurs.

The downdraft starts to pull the heavy water down and rain starts.

3. The last stage is called the Dissipating Stage

The thunderstorm dissipates when the cloud downdrafts overcome the updrafts. If warm and moist air cannot rise anymore, then it cannot produce water droplets either.

The cloud begins to disappear from the bottom to top and simply dies out.

How high can thunderstorms go?

The tops of thunderstorms have reached as high as 68,000 feet! A typical max altitude an airliner is certified to fly is 41,000 feet.

So it’s easy to imagine why pilots circumnavigate thunderstorms at a safe distance away.

A pilot will NEVER fly into a thunderstorm.

Do you have any weather-related stories from personal experiences as an airline passenger?

Please share your story below.

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