Techniquest

The science behind thunderstorms

Temperatures across the UK have recently been at a 5-year high, which begs the question, how long will this heatwave last?

With all the sticky summer sun we’ve been having, it was only a matter of time before we saw cracks of lightning and heard the rumble of thunder.

As we enjoy the respite brought by recent downpours, we’ve decided to explore the science of thunderstorms.

How does a thunderstorm develop?

For a thunderstorm to develop, moisture and rapidly rising warm air must be present. These elements are usually rare in the UK, but the recent soaring temperatures and high humidity has created the perfect condition for thunderstorms to thrive.

But how do these conditions culminate in a thunderstorm?

If the lowest layer of air in the atmosphere is humid, the upper layer of air exceptionally cold, or often both, the air mass becomes unstable. This instability leads to the formation of a tall convective cloud, better known as a thunderstorm.

As near-surface air rises in an unstable air mass it expands and cools. This makes it warmer than its environment, and so the rising continues to increase.

The increasing humidity results in an increase of water vapour present, which condenses into a cloud. This cloud has the ability to release heat, which adds to the warmth of the existing air mass, causing it to rise again within the atmosphere.

Even in tropical locations, the top part of a thunderstorm will consist of ice, ice graupel, snow and even hail. Approximately 50% of thunderstorm rain is a result of the ice present in the upper portion of a thunderstorm.

Why are thunderstorms important?

Thunderstorms are needed to stabilise the atmosphere. This occurs through using excess water vapour to cool the lower atmosphere, warming the upper atmosphere.

Is lightning needed for a storm to be classed as a thunderstorm?

The answer is yes. Lightning is caused when liquid and ice particles above the freezing level collide, resulting in large electrical fields within the clouds. When these electrical fields reach a big enough size, a giant spark is created, known as lightning.

What time is a thunderstorm most likely to occur?

The most common time for a thunderstorm is the afternoon. This is because the daytime heating of the land by the sun causes the lowest layer of the atmosphere to become unstable.

 

Find us

  Techniquest, Stuart Street, Cardiff, CF10 5BW

Contact us

  029 2047 5475
  info@techniquest.org

Opening hours

  During local school holidays
10.00am–5.00pm Bank Holidays, seven days a week.

  School term
9.30am–4.30pm Tuesday–Friday;
10.00am–5.00pm Saturday and Sunday.

Charity & company

  Registered charity no. 517722
  Registered in Wales no. 01955696

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FAQs

  •   What is Techniquest?

    Techniquest is an educational charity, with a science centre in Cardiff Bay. Our mission is to embed science in Welsh culture through interactive engagement. We provide a range of services to schools and teachers to complement formal education provision in Wales and work extensively with public audiences.

  •   Where can I park?

    We are pleased to be able to offer all of our visitors discounted parking with Q-Park, our preferred parking partner.

    The Q-Park operates the Cardiff Bay car park in Pierhead Street which is around 8 minutes walk from Techniquest.

    We have agreed a special discount rate for our customers of 15% off all pre-bookings.
    Pre-book and guarantee your space here using the code TECHNI15.

    There are also nearby pay-and-display car parks on Stuart Street and Havannah Street. Please do not park on Havannah Street itself.

  •   Who is it for?

    Techniquest is suitable for all ages! We do have special events for certain groups, however — see Toddler Days, After Hours and Home Educator days.

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