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The Spring 2011 issue of The Earth Scientist is focused on modernizing seismology education. Thanks to IRIS, you can download this issue for free as a pdf. Print copies are available in our online store.
Lightning is visible through a silhouette of trees
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Image Courtesy of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/Carlye Calvin

Thunder and Lightning

Lightning is the most spectacular element of a thunderstorm. In fact it is how thunderstorms got their name. Wait a minute, what does thunder have to do with lightning? Well, lightning causes thunder.

Lightning is a discharge of electricity. A single stroke of lightning can heat the air around it to 30,000 degrees Celsius (54,000 degrees Fahrenheit)! This extreme heating causes the air to expand at an explosive rate. The expansion creates a shock wave that turns into a booming sound wave, better known as thunder. This explains why it has the name thunderstorm.

Thunder and lightning occur at roughly the same time, although you see the flash of lightning before you hear the thunder. This is because light travels much faster than sound.

Last modified May 27, 2010 by Becca Hatheway.

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