Learning Through the Lens of Thunder Storms
METEOROLOGY: Thunder & Lightening
The feeling of a summer thunderstorm is familiar to us all – the temperature drops, the breeze cools, bright leaves rustle endlessly louder, and a distant echo of thunder rolls across the darkening sky. Though they can be scary for youngsters (and anxious pets), thunderstorms are an important part of summer weather, bringing much-needed rain to the landscape and cooling the oppressive heat that hangs in July’s muggy air. But how are thunder and lightning formed? How do flashes of light appear, and where does the sound come from? Learn more about meteorology and the science behind thunderstorms in this video, “How Lightening Works.”
FOLKLORE: Thunder & Lightening
Thunderstorms remained quite mysterious for centuries, and cultures worldwide have developed a variety of folktales to explain their occurrence. In Nigeria, a tale of a sheep and its ram son says that thunder and lightning come from the creatures, whose bad behavior resulted in them being banished to the skies. Inuit mythology shares a cautionary tale wherein children too noisy to play at home turn into thunder-causing ghosts. There’s even a tall tale about Henry Hudson that explains thunder as the sound of gnomes bowling in the Catskills. Here’s another story, “The Cambodian myth of lightning, thunder, and rain.”
An exciting natural event, thunderstorms are relatively complex. While the basic principles of such noisy, crashing weather are easy to explain, the reasons for some of a thunderstorm’s elements are not so simple to decipher. The storms themselves occur when a cold front moves quickly into an area filled with warm air. As cold air is denser than warm air, the cold front pushes warm air up and out of its way. When the rising warm, moist air meets the approaching cold front, it cools and condenses into cumulonimbus clouds – the rolling, billowing clouds characteristic of summer storms. “Clouds write a kind of journal on the sky that allows us to understand the circulating patterns of weather and climate … The study of clouds has always been a daydreamer’s science, aptly founded by a thoughtful young man whose favorite activity was staring out of the window at the sky.” In this TED-Ed video,” Richard Hamblyn tells the history of Luke Howard, the man who classified the clouds and forever changed humanity’s understanding of these changeable, mysterious objects.”
STEM: Convection Currents
One informative and straightforward way to learn about the air currents that cause thunderstorms (called convection currents, as the hot air rises) is to do a simple experiment at home. Instead of relying on moving air, families can replicate currents with water, using food coloring to observe the molecules’ motion. Before experimenting, freeze an ice cube with blue food coloring in it. Once it has frozen, drop it into one side of a flat-bottomed container of still water. Then, drop some red food coloring on the other side of the container. Watch as the colors move across the container – as the ice cube melts, the blue food coloring will move across the bottom of the container, and red will float above it, just like the warm and cold air currents behave before a storm takes place.
CITIZEN SCIENCE: Clouds
Once kids understand how air currents cause storms, a summer filled with thunderstorms becomes an entirely different beast. A loud, wet, and scary occurrence can be transformed into something fascinating once its cause is understood. Enthusiastic cloud watchers can turn studies of thunderstorm clouds into a Citizen Science project by participating in NASA’s S’COOL cloud-watching program, a project that allows NASA to pair observations of clouds with data collected by special satellites.
MEDIA EXPLORATIONS: Weather
To continue the weather theme at home, listen to our archived weather-themed episode of the Hilltown Families Variety Show and watch this video of art inspired by T-Storms! Additionally, check out these thunderstorm-themed titles to learn more about the science behind storms and how they affect people in all geographic locations: 18 Story Books on Weather for Kids.