Introductory Meteorology

Lesson 8. The Role of Stability in Thunderstorm Formation


nigh time thunderstorm
A spectacular lightning photograph during a nighttime thunderstorm.
Credit: David Witmer

Thunderstorms, apart from the role they play in maintaining the atmosphere's balance of heat, moisture, electrical charge, etc., are vital in one area that is most often overlooked by most people. Thunderstorms are perhaps the number one recruiting tool for new meteorologists. The next time that you find yourself talking to a meteorologist (or a self-professed "weather-weenie") ask them what inspired their passion for weather. Odds are that thunderstorms had something to do with it. Even from the dawn of time, every culture has been captivated by lightning, thunder, and swirling dark clouds. And even today, although thunderstorms have all but lost their myth and mysticism, they still manage to inspire us.

So what concepts must we be familiar with in order to begin to understand thunderstorms? Perhaps the most important concept to learn about is the vertical movement of air. By now, you should have an inkling that rising and sinking air really impact the type of "weather" a location experiences. In past cases, however, we have been looking at large-scale factors that influence vertical air motion such as convergence/divergence patterns both at the surface and aloft. In this lesson, we are going to explore how small regions can have air rising readily (and sometimes violently), while the general pattern of weather can be otherwise uneventful. We will also look at the climatology (that is, the "where" and "when") of thunderstorms, explore the life-cycle of a typical thunderstorm, and also learn about lightning and lightning safety. In the end, I hope that the next time you watch a thunderstorm, this introduction to thunderstorms will only serve to enhance your appreciation. Read on.