SwRI scientists captures imaged thunder by artificially triggered lightning

Lightning and thunder are two of the most interesting and most misunderstood features in weather or science. While they’re entirely regular and commonplace, lightning is striking Earth more than 4 million times a day, it remains something that scientists and meteorologists know little about. That supreme misunderstanding is what spurred the most recent study conducted by the Southwest Research Institute, which worked to understand where thunder comes from.

Prior to this scientists understood that it came down to friction that was created, and the heat that spawned from the lightning itself. Eventually, that turned itself into a sonic boom, which is what everyone hears when they are sitting through a thunderstorm. However, the interesting thing about this study is that it finally looked beyond the basic structure or reason for thunder – and fundamentally tried to understand it.

The findings were pretty impressive, as researchers involved learned that through a few experiments, they were able to graph and isolate where the heat and energy was specifically coming from. Dr. Maher A. Dayeh pointed out, “A listener perceives thunder largely based upon the distance from lightning. From nearby, thunder has a sharp, cracking sound. From farther away, it has a longer-lasting, rumbling nature.” However, that exposes one of the most significant questions about thunder.

Thunder is without question subjective, and that means depending on positioning, thunder is giving off more strength. That would give light to the notion that different parts of the lightning bolt might be creating more portions of the thunder, than other parts. The researchers found that in terms of lightning bolts, which strike Earth, the loudest portion of the bolt is the portion that strikes the ground. When the team graphed the lightning bolt though and compared it with the sound, Dayeh points out that, “Instead of imagining as one loud boom, we know it’s coming from different portions. As you look vertically [at the lightning] each part emits a sound signal.”

It’s these various parts of a thunderclap that are now more understood than they ever were before. Now, further information can be gathered as more studies are done to actually determine where these sounds are coming from in varying types of strikes and at the end of the day – will shed better light on thunderstorm preparedness and how humans interact with the weather. It could even help with predicting weather.