Lightning vs Thunder: What are the Main Differences?

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© iStock.com/solarseven

Written by Kristen Holder

Updated: November 4, 2022

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Lightning is awe-inspiring. It’s exciting for some people, while it’s scary for others. We know that thunder and lightning happen in the same storm, but how does that storm work? What is lightning vs thunder and what are the main differences?

Lightning doesn’t only occur during a thunderstorm. Natural events like huge forest fires, volcanic eruptions, snowstorms, and hurricanes also cause lightning and thunder. There is thunder created during some detonations of nuclear devices as well.

There are around 100,000 thunderstorms in the United States every year so we’ll all undoubtedly encounter one sometime soon. What exactly are the main differences between the lightning seen and thunder heard during one of these storms?

We’ll look at the differences and similarities between lightning and thunder and discuss some other interesting facts about thunderstorms.

Lightning vs Thunder: What are the Main Differences?

LightningThunder
What Comes First?Comes First/Creates ThunderComes Second/Created by Lightning
Type of EnergyElectricalSound
Speed670 Million Miles Per Hour768 Miles Per Hour
Will Kill You?YesNo
Found Around the World?YesYes

The main difference between lightning occurs first, discharging rapid heat into the air, which then cools quickly. The rapid expansion and contraction causes a sound wave called thunder. A detailed breakdown of the differences between lightning and thunder are:

  • Lightning causes thunder, but thunder doesn’t cause lightning.
  • Lightning and thunder are dependent on each other but they are separate events.
  • Lightning is electrical energy while thunder is sound energy.
  • The light created by lightning travels much faster than the sound thunder creates.
  • Light from lightning travels 670 million mph and thunder’s sound travels 768 mph.
  • Lightning can heat the air to as high as 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Thunder can be heard up to 10 miles away from the lightning source.
  • Lightning kills people. Thunder does not.

Lightning vs Thunder Explained

Types of Clouds - Storm

Thunder is made of sound energy and lightning is made of electrical energy.

©Jeff Gammons StormVisuals/Shutterstock.com

Lightning causes thunder, but thunder does not cause lightning. The two are dependent on each other but they are separate phenomena.

Lightning is electrical energy and thunder is sound energy. When lightning occurs, it heats the air around it to extreme temperatures. The expansion this causes in the heated air is so fast that it creates a shock wave which eventually turns into the sound that you hear.

Both thunder and lightning happen at the same time. The reason you see lightning first is because light travels faster than sound. Lightning travels at a speed of over 670 million miles per hour while sound travels a mere 768 mph.

Scientists use microphones at various locations combined with information about environmental conditions to study lightning. This is to pinpoint exactly where a lightning strike takes place. By constructing a model based on the location that the sounds came from, it’s possible to visualize the exact channel of the lightning strike.  

Lightning vs Thunder: What is Lightning?

Lightning is about 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun.

©iStock.com/solarseven

Lightning is a release of electrical energy that’s almost like a gigantic spark. It can happen between clouds, or it can happen between a cloud and the ground. The light we see is produced by plasma created during the lightning strike.

During a thunderstorm, the bottom of the cloud becomes negatively charged, and the ground starts becoming positively charged. This imbalance is what creates a current. When the imbalance is great enough, a lightning bolt is made to correct the imbalance.

Lightning is dangerous. The air around lightning is heated to 54,000 degrees, and a lightning strike is around 5 times hotter than the sun’s surface.

Deaths caused by other natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes have a combined death toll that doesn’t exceed the amount of Americans killed by lightning each year. The flash flooding caused by thunderstorms does top the death toll created by lightning strikes.

Lightning vs Thunder: What is Thunder?

Thunder is the sound you hear during a thunderstorm. It can be heard up to 25 miles away from the lightning strike that creates it.

To create thunder, a lightning bolt is needed. Almost immediately after the creation of the lightning bolt, the immense heat from the lightning causes the air around the bolt to expand so rapidly that a shock wave is created. The wave is intense and deafening near the source.

Air slows down sound which is why a lightning bolt produces an aggressive yet quick thunderclap when the event is nearby. Not as much of the sound has been blocked and stretched out yet. As the sound travels and runs into more air, it slowly turns into a rumble.

Thunder sounds differently depending on the storm and your distance from it. Sometimes it cracks, other times it rumbles, and it makes every sound in between. This depends on how far away you are from the original lightning event.

People who are still being affected by the storm but are farthest away will hear a long growl of thunder.

Lightning vs Thunder: What is a Thunderstorm?

Types of Clouds - Cumulonimbus

The clouds responsible for thunderstorms look like anvils.

©Verin/Shutterstock.com

A thunderstorm occurs because of convection. Convection is usually created by a sun-warmed ground which causes an upward movement of the atmosphere. Things like mountains will provide that nudge. The hot air going upward collides with colder air higher up, and clouds form as the hot air cools, while the cold air warms simultaneously. The cloud gets bigger until the top of it is high enough in the sky that its moisture begins to freeze.

Clouds are the accumulation of water in the sky which may be in liquid or solid form. When a thunderstorm occurs, the rain, ice, and snow in the cloud collide, creating different electrical charges within the storm cloud. These electrical charges start separating themselves in the cloud into positive and negative charges, with the negative charges being at the bottom of the cloud. This causes the ground to become positively charged. When the two charges get close enough to each other, lightning occurs.

Not every storm is a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms require a specific set of circumstances to start charging enough to create electrical currents. Thunder comes from lightning, so that means that every thunderstorm is creating lightning. Severe thunderstorms show a few extreme characteristics such as 1-inch hail, tornadoes, or 60 mph winds.

Lightning vs Thunder: What Should I Do During a Thunderstorm?

If you can hear thunder, you’re in danger of being struck by lightning. Seek immediate shelter.

Once you’re in a safe location, there is a simple method to determine how far away you are from a thunderstorm. Every 5 seconds is about a mile, and if the lightning and thunder aren’t separated by a second, the storm is super close.

Astraphobia/Brontophobia – Fear of Thunder

The fear of thunder, isolated or thunderstorm is known as astraphobia or brontophobia. Someone who suffers from this specific phobia may feel elevated levels of heartbeat, anxiety, nausea, sweating, panic, dread and trembling. They may also feel like going to the toilet again and again and inserting finger in both ears.

How to Support Someone Suffering From Fear of Thunder?

Astraphobia is the most common phobia in the United States and can occur in anyone, at any age. Children may show signs, however, most of them outgrow this fear with age. Animals, such as dogs and cats are commonly affected by this phobia as well.

To support someone suffering from fear of thunder, ensure that they are not left alone during thunderstorms. They could also use noise cancelling headphones to minimize the noise or use other forms of distractions. Although, exposure to thunderstorm is the best way to build up an immunity, someone still may not recover from it. If the problem is too severe one might seek psychotherapy such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy).

If your pet is hiding under the bed or other furniture, try to act normal instead of speaking in soothing voice, sitting with them or petting.

Thunder and Mythology

Many cultures and ancient civilizations around the world have worshipped thunder in forms of deity. Here are some noteworthy gods from around the world.

Thor – The god of thunder and lightning according to Germanic and Norse mythology.

Adad – The god of storm and rain in Mesopotamian religion

Set – Egyptian god of thunder and desert, also associated with chaos

Zeus – God of sky and Thunder in Greek mythology. also, the kind of all gods

Jupiter – The Roman god of sky and thunder. Also, the ruler of all other gods

Perun – Slavik god of storm, thunder, war and fertility. Also, the ruler of Pantheon

Indra – The Hindu god or rain, thunder and storm. Also, the king and ruler of Swarglok (heaven)

There are also various representations of thunder, rain and fertility in Native American, African, Polynesian, Aboriginal and other South-East Asian mythologies.


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About the Author

Kristen Holder is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics related to history, travel, pets, and obscure scientific issues. Kristen has been writing professionally for 3 years, and she holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Riverside, which she obtained in 2009. After living in California, Washington, and Arizona, she is now a permanent resident of Iowa. Kristen loves to dote on her 3 cats, and she spends her free time coming up with adventures that allow her to explore her new home.

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