Thunderstorms at 37,000 feet. By Owen Zupp.

thunderstorms in an airliner

It’s that time of year.

Harmless white clouds grow into towering cumulus and trough lines push fronts through with a rapid pace and gusty winds. Either way, the afternoon brings those impressive walls of water in the form of thunderstorms that are admired from a distance or challenged with false valour.

In an airliner at 37,000 feet and 30 miles clear of these storms, they are something to behold. Their enormity is overwhelming, but in each growing cell there is character too. Within its core is a deep, dark expanse emitting flashes of lightning as if the giant’s stomach is unsettled by the windshear within. Meanwhile the top is a breathing, bubbling cap of convection wanting to grow higher, ever higher. But don’t be fooled, the anger doesn’t necessarily cease where the cloud ends as invisible vertical columns of air continue to rise. Downwind the cap becomes an anvil, a long horizontal overcast that seems benign but still threatens turbulence and hail to the unwary.

By night, the light show can be impressive. Shards of lightning strike at the earth while others zig-zag vertically and up into space. All the while, the internal flashes continue, although the thunder claps and rumbles are silent at 37,000 feet – unless you get too close.

And when you are at a safe distance, the power and volume of these cumulonimbus is awe-inspiring. Well clear and upwind, their dominance of the sky can be admired with the naked eye, while the weather radar sweeps deep into their anger like a meteorological x-ray. Meanwhile vast volumes of water pound the earth below as the winds whip up anything that is not tied down.

Here at 37,000 feet we can weave well clear of the thunderstorms, or defer to their power in a holding pattern, waiting until they have spoken and moved on. Sometimes they hunt in packs and sometimes they pock-mark the sky in isolated towers. Regardless of their numbers, they deserve our respect for it is we that venture into their domain. Personally, I never tire of their wild, unrestricted beauty. I watch in wonder from the best seat in the house until their energy dissipates and all that is left are clear skies and a charged atmosphere. Until tomorrow.


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