Severe Weather Warnings are issued when they have actually been observed by spotters or indicated on radar, and is occurring or imminent in the warning area.
Watches and Warnings
When severe weather is possible in your area, there are two key alerts to watch for.
A severe thunderstorm watch is issued when conditions are conducive to the development of severe thunderstorms in and close to the watch area.
Severe thunderstorm warnings are issued when a severe thunderstorm has actually been observed by spotters or indicated on radar, and is occurring or imminent in the warning area.
A thunderstorm is a rain shower during which you hear thunder. Since thunder comes from lightning, all thunderstorms have lightning. A thunderstorm is classified as "severe" when it contains one or more of the following: hail three-quarter inch or greater, winds gusting in excess of 50 knots (57.5 mph), tornado.
What we know
An average thunderstorm is 15 miles in diameter and lasts an average of 30 minutes. At any given moment, there are roughly 2,000 thunderstorms in progress around the world. It is estimated that there are 100,000 thunderstorms each year. About 10% of these reach severe levels.
How thunderstorm form
Three basic ingredients are required for a thunderstorm to form: moisture, rising unstable air (air that keeps rising when given a nudge), and a lifting mechanism to provide the "nudge."
The sun heats the surface of the earth, which warms the air above it. If this warm surface air is forced to rise -- hills or mountains, or areas where warm/cold or wet/dry air bump together can cause rising motion -- it will continue to rise as long as it weighs less and stays warmer than the air around it. As the air rises, it transfers heat from the surface of the earth to the upper levels of the atmosphere (the process of convection). The water vapor it contains begins to cool, releasing the heat, and it condenses into a cloud. The cloud eventually grows upward into areas where the temperature is below freezing. Some of the water vapor turns to ice and some of it turns into water droplets. Both have electrical charges. Ice particles usually have positive charges, and rain droplets usually have negative charges. When the charges build up enough, they are discharged in a bolt of lightning, which causes the sound waves we hear as thunder.
Life cycle of a thunderstorm
Thunderstorms have a life cycle of three stages: The developing stage, the mature stage, and the dissipating stage.
The developing stage of a thunderstorm is marked by a cumulus cloud that is being pushed upward by a rising column of air (updraft). The cumulus cloud soon looks like a tower (called towering cumulus) as the updraft continues to develop. There is little to no rain during this stage but occasional lightning. The developing stage lasts about 10 minutes.
The thunderstorm enters the mature stage when the updraft continues to feed the storm, but precipitation begins to fall out of the storm, and a downdraft begins (a column of air pushing downward). When the downdraft and rain-cooled air spreads out along the ground it forms a gust front, or a line of gusty winds. The mature stage is the most likely time for hail, heavy rain, frequent lightning, strong winds, and tornadoes. The storm occasionally has a black or dark green appearance.
Eventually, a large amount of precipitation is produced and the updraft is overcome by the downdraft beginning the dissipating stage. At the ground, the gust front moves out a long distance from the storm and cuts off the warm moist air that was feeding the thunderstorm. Rainfall decreases in intensity, but lightning remains a danger.
Types of thunderstorms
The single cell storm
Single cell thunderstorms usually last between 20-30 minutes. A true single cell storm is actually quite rare because often the gust front of one cell triggers the growth of another.
Most single cell storms are not usually severe. However, it is possible for a single cell storm to produce a brief severe weather event. When this happens, it is called a pulse severe storm. Their updrafts and downdrafts are slightly stronger, and typically produce hail that barely reaches severe limits and/or brief microbursts (a strong downdraft of air that hits the ground and spreads out). Brief heavy rainfall and occasionally a weak tornado are possible. Though pulse severe storms tend to form in more unstable environments than a non-severe single cell storm, they are usually poorly organized and seem to occur at random times and locations, making them difficult to forecast.
The multicell cluster storm
The multicell cluster is the most common type of thunderstorm. The multicell cluster consists of a group of cells, moving along as one unit, with each cell in a different phase of the thunderstorm life cycle. Mature cells are usually found at the center of the cluster with dissipating cells at the downwind edge of the cluster.
Multicell Cluster storms can produce moderate size hail, flash floods and weak tornadoes.
Each cell in a multicell cluster lasts only about 20 minutes; the multicell cluster itself may persist for several hours. This type of storm is usually more intense than a single cell storm, but is much weaker than a supercell storm.
The multicell line storm (squall line)
The multicell line storm, or squall line, consists of a long line of storms with a continuous well-developed gust front at the leading edge of the line. The line of storms can be solid, or there can be gaps and breaks in the line.
Squall lines can produce hail up to golf-ball size, heavy rainfall, and weak tornadoes, but they are best known as the producers of strong downdrafts. Occasionally, a strong downburst will accelerate a portion of the squall line ahead of the rest of the line. This produces what is called a bow echo. Bow echoes can develop with isolated cells as well as squall lines. Bow echoes are easily detected on radar but are difficult to observe visually.
The supercell storm
The supercell is a highly organized thunderstorm. Supercells are rare, but pose a high threat to life and property. A supercell is similar to the single-cell storm because they both have one main updraft. The difference in the updraft of a supercell is that the updraft is extremely strong, reaching estimated speeds of 150-175 miles per hour. The main characteristic which sets the supercell apart from the other thunderstorm types is the presence of rotation. The rotating updraft of a supercell (called a mesocyclone when visible on radar) helps the supercell to produce extreme severe weather events, such as giant hail (more than 2 inches in diameter, strong downbursts of 80 miles an hour or more, and strong to violent tornadoes.
The surrounding environment is a big factor in the organization of a supercell. Winds are coming from different directions to cause the rotation. And, as precipitation is produced in the updraft, the strong upper-level winds blow the precipitation downwind. Hardly any precipitation falls back down through the updraft, so the storm can survive for long periods of time.
The leading edge of the precipitation from a supercell is usually light rain. Heavier rain falls closer to the updraft with torrential rain and/or large hail immediately north and east of the main updraft. The area near the main updraft (typically towards the rear of the storm) is the preferred area for severe weather formation.
Causes of thunder
Lightning causes thunder. Thunder is the sound caused by rapidly expanding gases along a channel of lightning discharge. Energy from lightning heats the air to around 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes a rapid expansion of the air, creating a sound wave heard as thunder. An initial tearing sound is usually caused by the stepped leader, and the sharp click or crack heard at a very close range, just before the main crash of thunder, is caused by the ground streamer.
Thunder is rarely heard at points farther than 15 miles from the lightning discharge, but occasionally can be heard up to 25 miles away. At these distances, thunder is heard as more of a low rumbling sound because the higher frequency pitches are more easily absorbed by the surrounding environment, and the sound waves set off by the lightning discharge have different arrival times.
Lightning is a gigantic electrostatic discharge (the same kind of electricity that can shock you when you touch a doorknob) between the cloud and the ground, other clouds, or within a cloud. Scientists do not understand yet exactly how it works or how it interacts with the upper atmosphere or the earth’s electromagnetic field.
Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. It has been seen in volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, heavy snowstorms, in large hurricanes, and obviously, thunderstorms.
Causes of lightning
The creation of lightning is a complicated process. We generally know what conditions are needed to produce lightning, but there is still debate about exactly how lightning forms.The exact way a cloud builds up the electrical charges that lead to lightning is not completely understood. Precipitation and convection theories both attempt to explain the electrical structure within clouds. Precipitation theorists suppose that different size raindrops and hail get their positive or negative charge as they collide, with heavier particles carrying negative charge to the cloud bottom. Convection theorists believe that updrafts transport positive charges near the ground upward through the cloud while downdrafts carry negative charges downward. What follows is a summary of what we know.
Thunderstorms have very turbulent environments - strong updrafts and downdrafts occur often and close together. The updrafts carry small liquid water droplets from the lower regions of the storm to heights between 35,000 and 70,000 feet - miles above the freezing level. At the same time, downdrafts are transporting hail and ice from the frozen upper parts of the storm. When these particles collide, the water droplets freeze and release heat. This heat keeps the surface of the hail and ice slightly warmer than its surrounding environment, and a soft hail, or graupel forms.
When this graupel collides with additional water droplets and ice particles, a key process occurs involving electrical charge [www.nssl.noaa.gov]: negatively charged electrons are sheared off the rising particles and collect on the falling particles. The result is a storm cloud that is negatively charged at its base, and positively charged at the top.
Opposite charges attract one another. As the positive and negative areas grow more distinct within the cloud, an electric field is created between the oppositely-charged thunderstorm base and its top. The farther apart these regions are, the stronger the field and the stronger the attraction between the charges. But we cannot forget that the atmosphere is a very good insulator that inhibits electric flow. So, a HUGE amount of charge has to build up before the strength of the electric field [www.nssl.noaa.gov] overpowers the atmosphere's insulating properties. A current of electricity forces a path through the air until it encounters something that makes a good connection. The current is discharged as a stroke of lightning.
While all this is happening inside the storm, beneath the storm, positive charge begins to pool within the surface of the earth. This positive charge will shadow the storm wherever it goes, and is responsible for cloud-to-ground lightning. However, the electric field within the storm is much stronger than the one between the storm base and the earth's surface, so about 75-80% of lightning occurs within the storm cloud.
Types of Lightning
There are two categories of ground flashes: natural (those that occur because of normal electrification in the environment), and artificially initiated or triggered. Artificially initiated lightning includes strikes to very tall structures, airplanes, rockets and towers on mountains. Triggered lightning goes from ground to cloud, while "natural" lightning is cloud to ground.
Terms used to describe ground flashes include forked lightning, which shows branching to the ground from a nearly vertical channel; ribbon lightning, when the horizontal displacement of the channel by the wind appears as a series of ribbons; and bead lightning, when the decaying channel of a ground flash will sometimes break into a series of bright and dark spots. Ball lightning is a luminous sphere whose physics is not well understood.
Cloud-to-ground lightning (CG's)
A channel of negative charge, called a step leader [www.nssl.noaa.gov], will zigzag downward in roughly 50-yard segments in a forked pattern. This step leader is invisible to the human eye, and shoots to the ground in less time than it takes to blink. As it nears the ground, the negatively charged step leader is attracted to a channel of positive charge reaching up, a streamer [www.nssl.noaa.gov], normally through something tall, such as a tree, house, or telephone pole. When the oppositely-charged leader and streamer connect, a powerful electrical current begins flowing. A return stroke of bright luminosity travels about 60,000 miles per second back towards the cloud. A flash consists of one or perhaps as many as 20 return strokes. We see lightning flicker when the process rapidly repeats itself several times along the same path. The actual diameter of a lightning channel is one-to two inches.
A typical cloud-to-ground flash is a negative stepped leader that travels downward through the cloud, followed by an upward traveling return stroke. The net effect of this flash is to lower negative charge from the cloud to the ground. Less common, a downward traveling positive leader followed by an upward return stroke will lower positive charge to earth. These positive ground flashes now appear to be linked to certain severe storms and are the focus of intense research by scientists.
Cloud flashes sometimes have visible channels that extend out into the air around the storm (cloud-to-air or CA), but do not strike the ground. The term sheet lightning or intra-cloud lightning (IC) refers to lightning embedded within a cloud that lights up as a sheet of luminosity during the flash. A related term, heat lightning, is lightning or lightning-induced illumination that is too far away for thunder to be heard. Lightning can also travel from cloud-to-cloud (CC). Spider lightning refers to long, horizontally traveling flashes often seen on the underside of stratiform clouds.
There are also additional types of electrical discharges associated with thunderstorms called transient luminous events that occur high in the atmosphere. They are rarely observed visually and not well understood.
Hail is a form of precipitation that occurs when updrafts in thunderstorms carry raindrops upward into extremely cold areas of the atmosphere where they freeze into ice.
How hail forms
There are two ideas about hail formation. In the past, the prevailing thought was that hailstones grow by colliding with supercooled water [www.nssl.noaa.gov] drops. Supercooled water will freeze on contact with ice crystals, frozen rain drops, dust or some other nuclei. Thunderstorms that have a strong updraft keep lifting the hailstones up to the top of the cloud where they encounter more supercooled water and continue to grow. The hail falls when the thunderstorm's updraft can no longer support the weight of the ice or the updraft weakens. The stronger the updraft the larger the hailstone can grow.
Recent studies suggest that supercooled water may accumulate on frozen particles near the back-side of the storm as they are pushed forward across and above the updraft by the prevailing winds near the top of the storm. Eventually, the hailstones encounter downdraft air and fall to the ground.
Hailstones grow two ways: by wet growth or dry growth processes. In wet growth, a tiny piece of ice is in an area where the air temperature is below freezing, but not super cold. When the tiny piece of ice collides with a supercooled drop, the water does not freeze on the ice immediately. Instead, liquid water spreads across tumbling hailstones and slowly freezes. Since the process is slow, air bubbles can escape resulting in a layer of clear ice.
Dry growth hailstones grow when the air temperature is well below freezing and the water droplet freezes immediately as it collides with the ice particle. The air bubbles are "frozen" in place, leaving cloudy ice.
Hailstones can have layers like an onion if they travel up and down in an updraft, or they can have few or no layers if they are "balanced" in an updraft. One can tell how many times a hailstone traveled to the top of the storm by counting the layers. Hailstones can begin to melt and then re-freeze together - forming large and very irregularly shaped hail.
Difference between hail and sleet
The different ways precipitation is formed determines what type of precipitation it becomes. Hail is larger than sleet, and forms only in thunderstorms. Hail formation requires air moving up (thunderstorm updraft) that keep the pieces of ice from falling. Drops of supercooled water hit the ice and freeze on it, causing it to grow. When the hailstone becomes too heavy for the updraft to keep it aloft, ot it encounters downdraft air, it falls. Sleet forms from raindrops that freeze on their way down through a cloud. Snow forms mainly when water vapor turns to ice without going through the liquid stage. There is no thunderstorm updraft involved in either of these processes.
How hail falls to the ground
Hail falls when it becomes heavy enough to overcome the strength of the updraft and is pulled by gravity towards the earth. How it falls is dependent on what is going on inside the thunderstorm. Hailstones bump into other raindrops and other hailstones inside the thunderstorm, and this bumping slows down their fall. Drag and friction also slow their fall, so it is a complicated question! If the winds are strong enough, they can even blow hail so that it falls at an angle. This would explain why the screens on one side of a house can be shredded by hail and the rest are unharmed!
Speed of hail falling
We really only have estimates about the speed hail falls. One estimate is that a 1cm hailstone falls at 9 m/s, and an 8cm stone, weighing .7kg falls at 48 m/s (171 km/h). However, the hailstone is not likely to reach terminal velocity due to friction, collisions with other hailstones or raindrops, wind, the viscosity of the wind, and melting. Also, the formula to calculate terminal velocity is based on the assumption that you are dealing with a perfect sphere. Hail is generally not a perfect sphere!