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What causes thunder and lightning?

Thunderstorms develop when the atmosphere is unstable. As warm air rises it cools and condenses forming small droplets of water. If there is enough instability in the air, the updraft of warm air is rapid and the water vapour will quickly form a cumulonimbus cloud.

As the warm air continues to rise, the water droplets combine to create larger droplets which freeze to form ice crystals. As a result of circulating air in the clouds, water freezes on the surface of the droplet or crystal. Eventually, the droplets become too heavy to be supported by the updraughts of air and they fall as hail.

As hail moves within the cloud, it picks up a negative charge by rubbing against smaller positively charged ice crystals. A negative charge forms at the base of the cloud where the hail collects, while the lighter ice crystals remain near the top of the cloud and create a positive charge.

The negative charge is attracted to the Earth’s surface. When the attraction becomes too strong, the positive and negative charges come together, or discharge, to form a lightning bolt. The rapid expansion and heating of air caused by lightning produces the accompanying loud clap of thunder.

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