HAIL TO THE CHIEF: What Makes Thunder Louder

James Zahara Weather Blog

The showers and thunderstorms really packed a punch overnight, especially when it came with the thunder. My longtime friend, Bill Michaels from 97X called me this morning about the number of calls he received from his listeners of the thunder being louder and longer than expected. I do remember those moments when I was a kid but never took the liberty to find out why.  So, I made sure I was able to find that answer for him as well as those listeners.

Here it is!

Te sound of thunder is made by the lightning warming the air column it goes through. The heated air column expands rapidly and creates a sound wave that disperses and breaks the sound barrier, which we hear in the form of thunder.


So, what makes it louder? Most of the time it has to do with how the temperature changes with height, when there is a cold air near the surface and warm air above. This is what is called an ‘inversion’.


This inversion acts like a lid. Instead of the sound escaping into the atmosphere, the sound is trapped beneath the inversion and thus the thunder sounds much, much louder. Winds and how they vary with height can also affect how sound travels and it’s loudness.



Graphics:  Courtesy of the Weather Channel

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