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Rainforest Thunderstorm in the Amazon - nature landscape painting -

Rainforest Thunderstorm in the Amazon

Massive Thunderstorm Approaching in the Amazon Rainforest

Artist: George Vlad
Javari Valley, Brazil
Recommended charity: Amazon Watch

A thunderstorm of epic proportions on the horizon in the Amazon rainforest – with almost continuous lightning, thunder, wind, and a little rain.

I recently traveled to the Amazon rainforest in the tri-border area of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. It was the so-called dry season, but that really doesn’t mean much. In tropical and equatorial rainforests, the dry season is actually quite rainy, though the rainy season is even wetter; during my expedition, several awe-inspiring thunderstorms happened in the space of a few weeks.

Having spent extensive time in tropical and equatorial rainforests, I’m used to loud thunder, powerful lightning, heavy winds, and rain, and generally massive thunderstorms. What was new for me in this part of the Amazon was seeing these thunderstorms on the horizon, sometimes for hours before they hit.

On this evening, there were not one but two thunderstorms in the distance, with amazing lightning but with almost no thunder reaching me. That in itself was a curiously disconnected experience: I was surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest and could barely hear the low rumble of distant rolling thunder. I felt suspended in a weird limbo where, though the thunderstorms were real, I could only perceive them with one of my senses. Soon enough, as the sound started to reach me, this magic was broken.

I had ample time to sit on the porch of my hut and observe the epic clouds in the distance. I took my time shooting photos and videos, and even a timelapse of a massive cumulonimbus incus cloud taking over the sky. I also had five sound-recording rigs in various parts of the rainforest, although only one captured the storm’s extreme dynamic range well.

Thunder, rain, and wind aren’t the only elements in this soundscape. The jungle is teeming with wildlife, and at this time of day – after the dusk chorus – the insects take over. Occasionally some frogs join in as well. It’s a beautifully rounded ambiance, full of heavy contrast and perfectly immersive, with elements from close by and far away mixing together beautifully.

George Vlad (recording artist)

Now you’ve heard this thunderstorm soundscape, read on to discover further details about Amazon rainforest thunderstorms.

What causes storms, thunder, and lightning?

Thunderstorms are caused by the heating of moist air (for example, by sun-warmed ground), which causes it to rise. As it reaches higher, cooler altitudes, water vapor condenses into water droplets, creating a cloud. When the droplets get high enough to freeze, they fall, becoming negatively charged by smaller, positively charged ice crystals as they do so. This means that the base of the cloud becomes negatively charged, while the top becomes positively charged. The potential difference (voltage) between these charges can either discharge as sheet lightning – also known as intra-cloud lightning – or a discharge can occur between the ground and the cloud: cloud-to-ground lightning. 

But how does this relate to thunder? The discharges we call lightning cause the air surrounding them to be abruptly heated to temperatures of up to 54,000 °F (30,000 °C); this makes the air expand, generating the rippling shockwave which we call thunder. 

Why are thunderstorms frequent in the Amazon rainforest?

Because thunderstorms are driven by heated air (even in the case of thundersnow), they happen most frequently in hot, humid areas. In addition to the Amazon rainforest’s equatorial location, which means that its climatic conditions are already conducive to thunderstorms, the release of vapor from the forest via evapotranspiration (evaporation of water from the ground and transpiration from its 400 billion trees) makes thunderstorms even more frequent by increasing the buoyancy of the air over the region.

Storms are responsible for half of all forest mortality in the Amazon, due to windthrow: the uprooting or breakage of trees. Trees uprooted by storms in this way decompose, releasing the carbon dioxide they lock in while alive. Due to the effects of the climate crisis, the frequency of thunderstorms is only set to increase.

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