This article originally ran in The Wenatchee World in February 2018.
As the weather warms, we start to see more thunderstorms roll in from the mountains. Personally, I have loved the flash of lightning, the sound of thunderstorms, and the idea of so much energy bouncing around in the sky since I was a kid.
Here are some ways to explore thunderstorms with your family.
A thunderstorm is a storm with lightning and thunder. To get lightning and thunder, we need wet, warm air that rises quickly. Though they can happen at any time of year, we often get the most thunderstorms in the summer as warm air approaches the mountains and is pushed upwards. This creates a cumulonimbus cloud which produces lightning, which causes thunder.
Lightning is an electric current produced by a thunderstorm. How? Warm air rises inside the cloud, and when it gets high enough, it cools. When it gets cold enough, particles of ice form, and those particles collide with each other on their way back to earth, creating electrical charges. These particles are positive (in the top of the cloud) and negative (in the bottom of the cloud). When those charges get strong enough, positive charges and negative charges are attracted to each other and create a spark. That spark is lightning.
When lightning occurs, it creates a vacuum in the air it travels through. When the lightning disappears, nearby air rushes back into the space left by the lightning. This creates the crack of thunder.
Though humans are the most common cause of wildfires, lightning also causes wildfires. These natural wildfires can be scary, but as you probably know, wildfire is part of nature here in North Central Washington. Each year, we are learning how to better live with wildfires, though we have a long way to go.
Did you know that thunderstorms also produce fertilizer? Plants need nitrogen to grow, but most nitrogen on earth is not in a form that plants can use. Lightning breaks up nitrogen in the air into smaller particles. Rain then carries those particles into the ground to the roots of plants.
Exploring Thunderstorms with Kids
Normally I start this section of my articles encouraging families to get outside and experience the topic of the column. For obvious reasons, I am not going to encourage families to go stand out in a thunderstorm!
If you do find yourself caught out in a thunderstorm, you can take steps to protect yourself. There’s too much information to include here, so it’s best to do some research on the topic. But the basic idea is this: stay away from metal, bodies of water, and tall trees. The best place to be is inside a sturdy building (not something small like a picnic shelter) or in a car with the windows rolled up.
How do you know how far away lightning is? After you see lightning, count (use the “one-Mississippi” method, or a stop watch) until you hear thunder. Divide the number of seconds by 5. That’s how many miles away the lightning struck. Light travels faster than sound, which is why we see the lightning before we hear the sound it makes.
You can recreate lightning using wintergreen lifesavers. In a dark room in front of a mirror (or with a friend), chew the lifesavers with your mouth open. Blue sparks are formed when the chewing motion breaks apart sugars in the candy. These sugars release electrical charges, which react with opposite-charged particles in the air.