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Simulate a Thunderstorm

Thunderstorms can be loud and rather dramatic, but they are also fascinating and even beautiful weather events! In this activity, we’ll simulate the conditions that create thunderstorms, to learn a bit about how they happen in nature.  

Thunderstorm

How Do Thunderstorms Happen?

Rain, thunder and lightning are all common features of thunderstorms. Thunderstorms happen when hot, moist air (often called a warm air mass) rises quickly to cooler parts of the atmosphere (a cold air mass). As the rising warm air cools, it results in clouds and rain forming. Lightning, a form of electricity, develops inside the clouds. The lightning heats the air, which causes it to expand. This expansion causes the sound of thunder. Meanwhile, the cooled air sinks toward the ground, and this movement of air causes heavy winds. There is so much science up in that sky!

Did You Know:

There are an estimated 16 million thunderstorms around the world every year, with about 2,000 happening at any given moment.

Did You Know:

You can hear thunder up to 24 kilometers away. You can see lightning up to 160 kilometres away!

Did You Know:

The average thunderstorm is 24 km wide and lasts around 30 minutes.

Materials

To make our thunderstorm simulation, you will need the following materials:

  • A large, clear plastic container or bin
  • Lukewarm water
  • Red food colouring
  • Ice cubes made with blue food colouring (make these ahead of time)

Procedure

  1. Fill the container two-thirds full with lukewarm water. The lukewarm water is going to represent our warm air mass. 

  2. Let the water sit for one minute.

  3. Add a few blue ice cubes to one end of the container. Our ice cubes are going to represent our cold air mass. 

  4. Make a prediction! What do you think will happen when we add red colour to the water at one end of the container and blue coloured ice cubes at the other end of the container?

  5. Add three drops of red food colouring to the water at the other end of the container.

  6. Look along the side of your container and watch what happens! In particular, watch where the red and blue food colouring goes.

How This Shows How Thunderstorms Happen

Adding the blue ice cubes made the water cooler at one end of your container, water which then moved to the bottom of the container when it hit the warmer red water. The warmer red water should have moved above the cold blue water.

Why did that happen? Why didn’t they just mix together and make purple?

That’s because of convection: convection is a type of heat transfer that occurs through the movement of a fluid, such as water. This experiment shows the process of convection: the warmer water rises while the cooler water sinks, just as the warmer air rising to meet the cooler air in the atmosphere creates the conditions for a thunderstorm to occur.

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