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Why does lightning strike? And answers to 50 other weather questions

  • Why does lightning strike? And answers to 50 other weather questions

    Weather can be weird at times: In May, University of Colorado graduates saw snowflakes at their spring ceremony. About 1 to 3 inches fell in the Boulder area, cutting the “snow-mencement” short, reported the Washington Post. And who can forget the record-breaking cold snap in the Midwest earlier in 2019? Parts of North Dakota plunged to a dangerous -31 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Mother Nature can also be dangerous. This summer, wildfires burned through Spain, floods devastated parts of the Midwest, and a huge hail storm blew through Mexico. As global warming continues, these kinds of events are likely to become more common, although they may not become more predictable.

    Modern ability to forecast the weather came about during the Cold War. Rockets and satellites sent back pictures of the planet from space. These images revealed that the Earth had “bands and whirls and vortices that stretched thousands of miles,” wrote Hannah Fry in a 2019 New Yorker article. While meteorologists can provide a basic weather snapshot—whether to carry an umbrella or ditch the raincoat for short sleeves—extreme-weather events like heat waves, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes are harder to forecast. “Our long-range predictions rely on an assumption that the future will be similar to the past,” wrote Fry. “Lose that, and we lose the tools that have allowed us to prepare for such eventualities.”

    As the Earth continues to get hotter, climate change is likely to bring more hard-to-predict occurrences. But as historically unusual weather happens more often, people are getting used to it. Direct evidence of climate change—extreme heat, for example—is seen as normal. That may make it hard for people to grasp how much climate change is affecting the planet, according to a study published in the scientific journal PNAS.

    To find out more about how weather works, Stacker consulted, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and news sites to answer 51 common weather questions. Click through to find out what a haboob is or why lightning strikes.

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  • Why does lightning strike?

    A lightning bolt is a discharge of electricity in the atmosphere. The strike equalizes the positive and negative charges in the air. It usually happens within clouds, but it can occur between the clouds and the ground. 

  • Why does thunder come after lightning?

    The energy from lightning can heat the air to around 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This rapid warming causes the air to expand quickly. The result is a sound wave of thunder. 

  • What is a haboob?

    Huge walls of dust are sometimes called a haboob which means “blown” in Arabic. They form when high winds push out of falling thunderstorms. A haboob can reach 1,500 to 3,000 feet tall and 100 miles wide.


  • What is a bomb cyclone?

    In March 2019, a winter storm in the central U.S. went through bombogenesis, which means the storm’s barometric pressure dropped quickly. This transformed the storm into a powerful bomb cyclone with winds as strong as a Category 2 hurricane. The storm caused blizzards and flooding from Colorado to the Midwest.


  • Can weather changes really cause a headache?

    There is some evidence that changes in temperature or barometric pressure can trigger a migraine, though researchers are still trying to figure out why people are affected differently. Bright sunlight, strong winds, storms, and dry or humid air may also lead to headaches in some people, according to the Mayo Clinic.


  • Why does humidity make people sweat more?

    The body cools itself by sweating. If the air is dry, water evaporates off the skin pretty quickly. But if it’s humid, meaning there’s already moisture in the atmosphere, it takes longer for sweat to leave the skin. When the humidity gets high, the body may not be able to cool off at all. As climate change continues to heat the planet, humidity in hot cities may lead to more heat-related deaths.



  • What does wind chill mean?

    Wind chill doesn’t refer to how cold it actually is. It’s a measure of how likely it is that an exposed part of the body will get frostbite. A Vox article explained it like this: If it’s 38 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, that doesn’t mean it feels like it’s freezing. It just means the wind would cause an uncovered face to get frostbite quicker.



  • Why is cold weather dangerous?

    Skin and the tissue under it can freeze, otherwise known as frostbite. When the body gets cold, it sends blood to organs to keep them warm, leaving earlobes, noses, cheeks, fingers, and other extremities vulnerable. If someone is cold for a long time and their body temperature falls below 96 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia can set it and lead to heart failure or death. Infants and the elderly are at the most risk.



  • What is the difference between climate and weather?

    Weather is the daily or weekly changes that happen in the atmosphere. Climate refers to what the weather is like over a long period of time, sometimes over a few decades. Climate is what you think will happen in the atmosphere, whereas weather is what actually happens, explains the National Centers for Environmental Information.


  • What’s the difference between climate change and global warming?

    When people talk about global warming, they’re referring to the rising temperature of the Earth. Climate change includes all the environmental effects of global warming: stronger storms, drought, forest fires, melting ice, and rising tides, for example.