Why does thunder have different sounds?

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Have you ever wondered why thunder can have different sounds? A crack instead of a rumble? Frighteningly loud or reassuringly quiet? Let’s dive in…

The Basics: What is Thunder?

Electrical charges that build up during a storm are released in the form of lightning. This electrical discharge creates extreme heat, superheating the air around the lightning channel to about 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s about five times the surface temperature of the sun!)

All gases expand as the temperature increases. So when lightning superheats the air in a split second, the air expands so quickly that it compresses the air in front of it. Thunder is the acoustic sound wave created by the rapid expansion and contraction of air.

DETAILED: The flash of a bolt of lightning can always be seen before its thunder is heard, since light travels faster than sound.

Lightning is an electrical discharge. Thunder is the sound wave created by the rapid expansion and contraction of air around this discharge channel. (Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology, Commonwealth of Australiaa)

What affects the sound of thunder?

Sound waves travel faster in warm air than in cold air and are refracted or bent towards areas of lower pressure. Because our atmosphere typically cools with altitude, these sound waves tend to curve upwards, making it harder for a person farther from the location of the lightning to hear thunder. Humidity also plays a role, as a wetter environment bends or blocks more sound waves.

thunder sounds

A”Crack“is typically indicative of a nearby or relatively close thunderstorm and/or an impact perpendicular to a person (e.g., lightning extending from cloud to ground).

A”Rumble“is typically associated with more distant storms and/or an impact parallel to a person (e.g., lightning extending from one end of a cloud to the other).

A”boom” indicates that lightning has reached the ground.

A combination of “cracks” and “rumbles” is heard when sound waves from multiple beats reach a person at different times.

Combination of perpendicular and parallel sound waves. Courtesy of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)

myth or not?

Lightning will never strike the same spot twice.

MYTH. The Empire State Building in New York is said to be struck by lightning an average of 25 times a year.

If I can’t see the storm, I can’t be struck by lightning.

MYTH. Lightning can strike as far as 10-12 miles from its originating storm, using the term “bolts out of the blue.”

I can survive a lightning strike.

TRUE. But repercussions are likely. Ninety percent of people struck by lightning survive, but often sustain long-term injuries.

lightning security

Lightning occurs with every thunderstorm, and the best way to ensure safety is to stay indoors when a thunderstorm is in the area. A building with four walls and a roof is considered “inside” (not a baseball shelter, not under an overhang, not under a tree, etc.).

In 2022, Texas was the state with the most lightning strikes (27.7 million).

How does lightning strike a person?

There are five ways lightning can strike a person:

  • Direct hit – A person becomes part of the lightning discharge channel.
  • side flash – Lightning strikes a tall object and part of the current jumps to a nearby person.
  • ground current – Lightning strikes an object and the energy propagates outward into and along the ground surface.
  • Management – Lightning strikes metal or wires, opening a path for energy.
  • streamers – A downward moving lightning channel connects to the so-called a streamers, a positively charged channel of air directly above a tall object on the ground. When a streamer connects to the main channel, all nearby streamers will discharge.

Click here for Lightning Strike Animations.

how is it written

Lightning. No.

Lightening is about making something lighter (less weight). Lightning occurs during a thunderstorm.

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