ORLANDO, Fla. – Lightning is common here in Central Florida, and so are the loud claps of thunder that follow.
Thunder is the sound caused by a nearby flash of lightning. Here’s the process.
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Within a thunderstorm, there’s both warm air that has water droplets in it and cold air that has ice crystals. During the storm process, the two bump together and move apart.
As this happens, static electrical charges are made in the clouds containing a positive charge at the top of the cloud and a negative charge at the bottom. As the charge at the bottom of the cloud gets stronger, it releases energy and we see the bolt of lightning.
As the lightning passes through the air, it heats up rapidly up to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s five times hotter than the surface of the sun! The rapid heating causes the air to expand followed by an immediate contracting as the air cools. It’s the rapid changing of the air that creates the wave of sound known as thunder.
Sometimes, thunder can sound like a loud clap or crack. Other times, it’s a low rumble. This difference in sound can help determine how far away the lightning is.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a simple formula to determine how far away the lightning is. Regardless of the distance, “when thunder roars, head indoors.” Anyone who hears thunder should seek shelter immediately because they’re close enough to the storm to be within striking distance. Here’s the math to prove it.
After lightning is seen, it takes the sound of thunder about 5 seconds to travel a mile. Once the lightning flash is seen, count the number of seconds before the thunder is heard. Take that number and divide by 5 or the amount of time it takes the sound to travel a mile.
For example, after a flash of lightning if there’s 20 seconds until the thunder is heard, that means the lightning was about 4 miles away. The less time between the flash and the sound of thunder, the closer the lightning is and the thunder is usually louder.
Regardless of how far away the lightning is, a good rule to go by is “if you see it, flee it.” Why? Lightning can travel 10-12 miles from a thunderstorm. Thunder is heard up to 10 miles from the strike, so this means lightning can travel farther than the sound of thunder.
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