Thunderstorms are characterized by both lightning and thunder, most of the time. While the two phenomena occur together, they have stark differences that must be identified.
The two are very different in how they are formed, how they appear to humans, the speed at which they travel, the mode through which they are measured, and the impact they have on the region they hit.
For more information on all five differences, please continue reading.
Lightning and thunder have their distinct processes which cause them.
Thunderstorms are weather phenomena involving the development of convective clouds, which can produce lightning, thunder, and heavy rainfall. They also include warm, moist air pockets that rise and cool when they reach a lower temperature.
These form clouds, which develop into bigger clouds that produce electric charge and form lightning and thunder.
Lightning is a visible electrical discharge between two cloud parts with an opposite electrical charge. This can also exist between the cloud and the ground. The particles in the cloud gain charges and positive and negative charges are separated due to the movement.
When the electrical potential difference between two regions within the cloud becomes large enough, the air between them breaks down, and an electric discharge in the form of a lightning bolt is produced.
Since the two are formed differently, they are also observed in different ways. The human eye sees lightning, while the ears perceive thunder.
Lightning is a natural electrical discharge that occurs during a thunderstorm. It appears as a bright, jagged, and sometimes branching streak of light in the sky. This can look like a tree branch or just a big ball of white light.
There is no set shape in which lightning occurs; the only consistent feature is the bright light and the electric charge.
The appearance of lightning can vary depending on the type of discharge and the angle from which it is viewed, but it is mostly a spectacular and awe-inspiring sight.
On the other hand, thunder is a loud, explosive sound that is heard during a thunderstorm. It is caused by the rapid expansion of the air surrounding a lightning bolt, which creates a shockwave that travels through the atmosphere.
The sound of thunder can vary in intensity and duration, depending on the distance between the lightning bolt and the observer and the type of thunderstorm. Thunder has a deep, rumbling quality but can also be sharp or crackling.
We all know how different the speeds of light and sound are; this can be observed in the difference in speed between lightning and thunder.
The speed of lightning is faster than the speed of thunder. It travels about 270,000 miles per hour or 430,000 kilometers per hour, making lightning one of the fastest natural phenomena on Earth.
However, lightning is an electrical discharge, so it travels in a zigzag pattern, following the path of least resistance through the atmosphere.
So even though lightning itself is very fast, its path can be unpredictable and may appear to move more slowly to the human eye.
Now let’s talk about thunder. The sound of thunder travels at a speed of approximately 1,125 feet per second (340 meters per second) through dry air at sea level.
This is considerably slower than lightning. This is why the lightning bolt is the first to appear, and the sound is later heard.
Modes Of Measurement
Like all natural processes, lightning and thunder are also measured by scientists to help collect data, understand their behavior and predict future events.
Lightning is measured using a lightning detector which identifies and measures the electromagnetic fields that lightning strikes produce. Moreover, lightning mapping systems are used, which employ sensors that detect and locate lightning.
The intensity of lightning is measured by measuring the electric current and charge in it.
Unfortunately, thunder is a phenomenon that cannot be measured in how lightning is measured. It is a sound, and the intensity of the sound can be recorded. The duration of the thunder and the loudness are measured using a sound-level meter.
The intensity of thunder can vary widely depending on the distance from the lightning strike and the strength of the storm, with some thunderclaps reaching over 120 dB, which is equivalent to the loudness of a jet engine at close range.
Interestingly, the duration of thunder can be used to estimate the distance of the lightning strike. By counting the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder, one can estimate the distance of the lightning strike in miles or kilometers.
The impacts of the two phenomena are different.
Lightning can have both positive and negative impacts. It is seen as an energy source that fuels many human and natural processes. For example, lightning can help fertilize the soil and improve soil health. Moreover, attempts to use lightning to generate electricity have been made, but they have reaped no results so far.
On the flip side, lightning can start fires in urban areas and wildfires in areas with vegetation. It poses a huge threat to the electrical systems and compromises the safety of citizens in the area. Common incidents of lightning bolts striking people or poles and electrocuting them are observed.
On the other hand, thunder only has negative effects, which are determined by the storm’s strength. Thunder can startle the population of the area where it occurs and may cause feelings of anxiety, fear, and panic among them.
Thunderstorms, as a whole, cause immense damage to buildings and infrastructure. If a thunderstorm is not managed and breaks records, it can lead to flash floods, erosion, landslides, and eventually injury and loss of lives. Severe disruptions in routine services are also experienced.
While lightning and thunder are very interesting to read about, these pose serious threats to the life of people, animals, and plants. Moreover, they can be detrimental to infrastructure and cause damages that may take a long time to repair. Hence, preventive measures are advised.