Thunderstorms - Florida Climate Center (2024)

The average number of thunderstorm days each year throughout the U.S. Courtesy of theNational Weather Service.

Virtually all summer rainstorms are accompanied by thunder and lightning. No other part of the nation has more thunderstorm activity than Florida. In the western half of the peninsula in a typical year, there are over 80 days with thunder and lightning. Central Florida's frequency of summer thunderstorms equals that of the world's maximum thunderstorm areas: Lake Victoria region of equatorial Africa and the middle of the Amazon basin. The Amazon and east African areas maintain their frequency of thunderstorm activity throughout most of the year, whereas the number of thunderstorms in Florida drops off sharply in the fall and does not pick back up until spring.

The simplest definition of a thunderstorm is a local storm that produces lightning and thunder. The storm itself can either be a single cumulonimbus cloud, a cluster of several thunderstorms, or a line of thunderstorms. In order for thunderstorms to form, there needs to be:

  1. Moisture - to form clouds and rain.
  2. Unstable air - warm air that can rise rapidly.
  3. Lift - cold or warm fronts, sea breezes, mountains or the sun's heat are capable of lifting air to help form thunderstorms.

Once all of these components are brought together, the thunderstorm then goes through a 3-stage life cycle:

Development or Cumulus Stage: A cumulus cloud forms and begins to grow vertical, usually above 20,000 ft. Usually, little, if any, rain occurs during this stage. There might be occasional lightning.

Mature Stage: The cloud has grown in considerable height, now in the range to 40,000 to 60,000 ft. Strong updrafts and downdrafts coexist within the storm. This is the most dangerous stage of the storm and is the most likely time for hail, heavy rain, lightning, strong winds and tornadoes. Storms occasionally have a black or dark green appearance.

Dissipating Stage: The downdraft cuts off the updraft, which cuts off the supply of warm moist air to the storm and therefore, it dissipates. Rainfall decreases in intensity, along with winds, though strong gusts are still possible. Usually, the anvil top of the cloud is all that remains of the initial cumulus cloud.

Types of Thunderstorms

  • Ordinary Cell: As the name implies, this is a thunderstorm with only one cell. It's commonly referred to a 'pulse' thunderstorm.
  • Multi-cell Cluster: These are thunderstorms that are organized in clusters of 2-4 short-lived cells.
  • Multi-cell Line: Some thunderstorms will form in a line which can extend laterally for hundreds or miles. These 'squall lines' can persist for hours and extend for hundreds of miles. Squall lines can be continuous or with breaks and include contiguous precipitation. Long-lived squall lines are known as "derechos" and can travel hundreds of miles, causing considerable damage along their path.
  • Supercell Thunderstorms: These are potentially the most dangerous form of all thunderstorms types. Supercell thunderstorms have produced numerous long-lived strong and violent (EF2-EF5) tornaodes, along with damaging wind, hail and flash floods.

Thunderstorm Hazards

  • Hail:Hail is a showery precipitation in the form of irregular pellets or balls of ice more than 5mm in diameter, falling from a cumulonimbus cloud. Hailstones are formed when updrafts carry raindrops up into the highest parts of the cloud and the super-cooled liquid droplets collide. Hail drops back down into the warmer part of the cloud and carried back up, until the internal up and downdrafts can no longer support the size of the hailstone, then it falls to the ground.

    Hail size typically refers to the diameter of the hailstones. To make it easier to report, the following descriptions are often used:

    DescriptionDiameter (inches)
    Pea0.25
    Marble or Mothball0.50
    Penny or Dime0.75
    Nickel0.88
    Quarter1.00
    Half Dollar1.25
    Ping Pong Ball1.50
    Golfball1.75
    Hen's Egg2.00
    Tennis Ball2.50
    Baseball2.75
    Tea Cup3.00
    Grapefruit4.00
    Softball4.50

    So, why does Florida have so many thunderstorms, but not that many instances of hail? The freezing level in a Florida thunderstorm is so high; hail often melts before it reaches the ground. Even though hail is not common to the state, there have been about a dozen events of hail of over 3 inches being reported in Florida.

    One event in 1996 in Lake Wales, hail as big as softballs was reported. Damage to the area was done to windows, roves and cars totaling $24 million. In 2007, the area of Kendrick (North of Ocala) reported hailstones ranging in size from 2 to 4 inches.

  • Wind:Damaging winds are more likely to be associated with thunderstorms than tornadoes. In fact, many confuse damage produced by "straight-line" winds and often erroneously attribute it to tornadoes. The source of the damaging winds is the downdraft within the thunderstorm. A downdraft is a column of cool air that rapidly sinks to the ground that is usually accompanied by precipitation in a thunderstorm.

    Downdrafts can cause downburst, which can be further classified as either microbursts or macro bursts.

    A downburst is a strong downdraft current of air from a cumulonimbus clouds and is often associated with intense thunderstorms.

    • Microburst: A downdraft that can affect an area of less than 2½ miles wide with peak winds lasting less than 5 minutes.
    • Macroburst: A downdraft that can affect an area of at least 2½ miles wide and with peak winds lasting between 5 and 20 minutes. Intense macrobursts may cause tornado-force damage of up to F3 intensity.
  • Tornadoes: See the Florida tornadoes section.
  • Flash Floods:Except for heat related fatalities, more deaths occur due to flooding than from any other hazard. The main reason is because people underestimate the power and force of water. The effects of flooding can be felt on local, state and even regional scales. In Florida, flooding occurs frequently, but most of the floods are minor. However, Floridians must be careful because even minor floods can cause many deaths.

    Floods are caused by rain, but flooding is more about how much rain falls, how fast it falls, and what happens to the rain after it hits the ground. The most common type of flood that happens during a thunderstorm is a flash flood. Most flash floods are caused be slow moving thunderstorms, thunderstorms that repeatedly move over the same area, or heavy rains from a tropical storm or hurricane. These floods can develop quickly depending on the intensity and duration of the storm, the topography of the area, soil conditions and ground cover.

  • Lightning: Lightning is the most lethal component of the thunderstorm. While the conditions needed to produce lightning are understood, how lightning forms has never been verified. Forecasters may never able to forecast when and where a lightning strike will take place.

    Florida is the lightning capital of the country, mainly due to our geography. The very elements that make our state a great place for outdoor activities -- warm temperatures and plenty of water -- also make the environment primed for the production of thunderstorms, which generate lightning.

Lightning develops during the violent circulation of air within the cumulonimbus cloud. The friction causes the positive and negative charges within the storm to separate. In addition, an electrical field develops between the base of the cloud and the ground. However, the electrical field in the cloud is stronger and most of the lightning (~75%) is contained within the cloud.

Thunderstorms - Florida Climate Center (5)

As the difference in the charge continues to increase, positively charged particles will rise up in taller objects, such as trees, telephone poles, and even buildings. A channel of negative charge, called a stepped ladder, will descend from the bottom of the storm cloud toward the ground. This is invisible to the human eye.

Thunderstorms - Florida Climate Center (6)

The positive charge that has collected in the tall object on the ground 'reaches' out to the approaching negative charge with its own channel, called a streamer. When these channels connect, the resulting electrical transfer is what we see as lightning. If enough of the charger is leftover, additional strokes will use the same channel and give the bolt the appearance of flickering. Lightning heats up the air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and this rapid heating of the air produces a shockwave that results in thunder.

Thunderstorms - Florida Climate Center (7)

Lightning has both negative and positive polarities. Most lightning forms at the bottom of the cloud, though less than 5% of all lightning occurs from the top of the anvil, making it a positive lightning strike. Positive lightning is very dangerous for several reasons. Since it comes from the top of the anvil cloud, the electric field is much stronger than a negative strike (almost ten times greater!). Some positive strikes can strike the ground beneath the cloud; however, most positive strikes occur near the edge of the cloud or can strike more than 10 miles away. Positive lightning is often responsible for the phenomenon commonly referred to as a "bolt from the blue". Positive strikes are more lethal and cause greater damage than negative lightning.

Thunderstorms - Florida Climate Center (8)

The global average annual occurrence of lightning, April 1995-February 2003. Courtesy of theNational Weather Service.

Thunderstorms - Florida Climate Center (2024)

FAQs

What conditions are favorable for thunderstorms ______________ and ______________? ›

There are three basic ingredients needed for thunderstorm development: moisture, an unstable atmosphere, and some way to start the atmosphere moving.

What is the main cause of thunderstorms in Central Florida? ›

Moisture - to form clouds and rain. Unstable air - warm air that can rise rapidly. Lift - cold or warm fronts, sea breezes, mountains or the sun's heat are capable of lifting air to help form thunderstorms.

What city in Florida has the most thunderstorms? ›

Wide temperature variation is necessary for a good thunderstorm to get going. In fact, the answer might surprise you. With an annual average of 89 thunderstorms, Fort Myers, Florida, is the thunderstorm capital of the U.S. And that's not some climatic anomaly, either.

Is there always a chance of thunderstorms in Florida? ›

On average, the interior sections of central Florida receive the most thunderstorms with nearly 100 plus days per year. However, thunderstorms are also frequent along coastal areas which average 80 to 90 days per year.

What are 5 facts about thunderstorms? ›

Thunderstorm Facts
  • Thunderstorms may occur singularly, in clusters, or in lines.
  • Thunderstorms are classified severe if they produce hail at least ¾ of an inch in diameter, have winds of at least 58 miles per hour or higher, or if they produce a tornado.
  • All thunderstorms contain lightning.

What are 2 positives of thunderstorms? ›

On the beneficial side, heavy precipitation from “wet” thunderstorms moistens fuels, decreases the activity of going fires, and lessens the risk that lightning strikes will start fires. But let us not become overconfident!

What month has the most thunderstorms in Florida? ›

The rainy season usually has three phases: Late May through June is the period when severe storms are most likely. Hail, damaging winds, and waterspouts are common, in addition to heavy rainfall and frequent lightning. July through early September is when the rainy season peaks.

Why Florida has so many thunderstorms? ›

Because Florida is surrounded by water, there are plenty of sources of water vapor to feed thunderstorms. Florida receives plenty of sunlight, which warms the air near the ground and causes the air to become unstable. All thunderstorms have an updraft, where air rises rapidly to seven to 10 miles above the ground.

How long do thunderstorms last in Florida? ›

Most thunderstorms last about 30 minutes and are typically about 15 miles (24 km) in diameter. The two biggest threats associated with most thunderstorms are lightning and flash floods. To understand why thunderstorms occur more often during the warm months requires some understanding of thunderstorm basics.

What part Florida gets worst storms? ›

Southeast Florida is very susceptible to hurricanes, given its location at the tip of the state. Most large hurricanes affect Southeast Florida with storm surges and plentiful rain – and those that make direct landfall can cause severe damage.

Where is the safest place to live in Florida from storms? ›

Orlando is often considered one of the safest cities in Florida from hurricanes due to its unique combination of factors. Being located inland helps to reduce the impact of storm surges and strong winds that happen when a storm reaches the coast.

What is the thunderstorm capital of Florida? ›

After Four Corners, Florida–in the Kissimmee area–was crowned the lightning capital of the United States in 2022, the most frequently struck place moved a little south in 2023.

Is it safe to shower in a thunderstorm Florida? ›

"The risk of lightning traveling through plumbing might be less with plastic pipes than with metal pipes," the CDC added. "However, it is best to avoid any contact with plumbing and running water during a lightning storm to reduce your risk of being struck."

What part of Florida rains the most? ›

The wettest parts of the state are the Panhandle and southeastern coast, while the Florida Keys tend to be one of the drier places. Most of the rain that falls in Florida is convective rainfall, meaning it forms from water that has evaporated from the Earth's surface due to the heat of the sun.

How long do rain showers last in Florida? ›

The rain (or thunderstorm) usually lasts for about 30 minutes, then moves on. If you're at a theme park, they WILL shut down rides until lightning has passed. This is a great time to get a snack, or check out the gift shops or indoor attractions.

What are the two conditions required to form a thunderstorm? ›

Three basic ingredients are required for a thunderstorm to form: moisture, rising unstable air (air that keeps rising when given a nudge), and a lifting mechanism to provide the “nudge.” The sun heats the surface of the earth, which warms the air above it.

What conditions are best for storms? ›

Here are some conditions favorable to severe weather and an explanation of each:
  • DRY AIR IN THE MID-LEVELS OF THE ATMOSPHERE: 1) Produces convective instability. ...
  • HIGH INSTABILITY: ...
  • PBL WIND SHEAR: ...
  • STRONG UPPER LEVEL WINDS: ...
  • STRONG UPPER LEVEL TROUGH: ...
  • HIGH DEWPOINTS IN PBL: ...
  • DYNAMIC TRIGGER MECHANISMS:

What are the two most important factors that determine thunderstorm type? ›

Meteorologists responsible for forecasting where thunderstorms will form and how severe they may become pay close attention to two main factors: stability of the atmosphere, and wind shear. In order for thunderstorms to form, air parcels must rise up and become unstable.

What are the two important characteristics of a thunderstorm? ›

Two important characteristics of Thunderstorm are: The violent blowing of winds with light or heavy rain. Dark clouds blocking the brightness followed by flashes of lightning.

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