What are the different types of thunderstorms?

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What are the different types of thunderstorms?

A supercell thunderstorm over Chaparral, N.M., photographed by Greg Lundeen for NOAA

Thunderstorms can be classified by severity or structure. For example, the National Weather Service defines a severe thunderstorm as one that produces one or more of the following: wind gusts of at least 58 mph, hail at least one inch in diameter, or a tornado.

The structure tells us how thunderstorms, severe and otherwise, are created, and how dangerous they may be. Thunderstorms are composed of basic building blocks called cells, which are compact regions of a cloud with a strong vertical updraft.

Thunderstorm cells come in two basic flavors: ordinary cells and supercells. Ordinary cells are a few miles in diameter and exist for less than an hour, whereas supercells are larger and can last for several hours. The supercell thunderstorm is a single-cell storm that almost always produces dangerous weather.

Single-cell ordinary thunderstorms are short-lived storms that are common in Florida but do not produce severe weather. Groups of thunderstorms often join into larger storm systems. Multicell storms are composed of lines or clusters of thunderstorm cells. A squall line is a line of thunderstorms in satellite or radar images.

Although they are less common than ordinary-cell storms, multi-cell and supercell storms cause the vast majority of severe weather associated with thunderstorms. The severity of these storms is primarily a result of the structure of the environment in which the storms form, with plenty of energy that can be stored as heat or water vapor.

Steven A. Ackerman and Jonathan Martin are professors in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW-Madison, are guests on the Larry Meiller‘s WHA-AM radio show the last Monday of each month at 11:45 a.m.