Thunderclouds build on a warm August afternoon dwarfing the Teton Range. With enough updraft and moisture, this could turn into a thunderstorm.
I recently passed the Federal Aviation Administration test that qualifies me as a licensed aerial drone pilot, allowing me to fly commercial ventures. This test is not easy, requiring much of the knowledge a prospective pilot learns in ground school. Some of it was pretty boring, but the weather section was a fascinating education.
Thunderstorms were particularly interesting. Although thunderstorms can happen any time of year, they are by far most common in the spring and summer months, especially in afternoon and evening. That is because a key ingredient in the thunderstorm recipe is heat. As the surface of the earth heats up, warm air begins to rise. An updraft, an essential component in the formation of a thundercloud, begins when warm air is given a nudge upward by something like a hill. Once the updraft is started, it grows and collects moisture as it rises up into cooler air.
As the warm air rises it cools and the moisture condenses. Towering cumulus clouds build and once they finally encounter freezing temperatures, usually around three miles above the surface, they continue to grow as cumulonimbus clouds that can tower over 11 miles, or nearly twice the height of Mount Everest, into the sky. This is the mature stage of a thundercloud and is when the heaviest lightning, rain and hail occur. Gusty winds accompany it as the falling precipitation generates a downdraft.
For pilots, cumulonimbus clouds are bad news. Trying to fly through one might be like flying through a blender because all is constant turmoil inside the cloud. Warm air continues to rise, moisture condenses and falls only to be caught once again in an updraft and carried back up. If this moisture is frozen, it may collect supercooled water droplets and grow until it is too heavy for the updraft to lift. Then if falls as hail.
Even electrons and protons are busy. As ice particles collide, electrical charges build, and when the charge is strong enough, the energy is released as lightning.
When enough moisture falls, the downdraft equals then exceeds the updraft and the thundercloud enters into the dissipation phase. Remaining moisture will fall and lightning is still a hazard, but the cloud structure softens and eventually everything returns to normal.
There are four different types of thunderclouds. Single-cell thunderstorms are small, localized storms that build and dissipate within an hour or so. These are the clouds we see forming on many August afternoons and may produce brief heavy rain and lightning.
A multi-cell storm is made of individual cells which may last only 30-60 minutes but new updrafts continually form along the leading edge of rain-cooled air. As new thunder cells are continuously born, a multi-cell storm may last for hours.
A squall line is a continuous line of thunderstorms. These are a particular hazard for pilots because, while they may only be 10-20 miles deep, they may extend for several hundred miles and can be difficult to fly around.
A supercell thunderstorm is the most dangerous. These are long-lived storms (over an hour) that are well organized around a tilted rotating updraft. Tornadoes are common in supercell storms and are small manifestations of the larger spinning storm.
I have always loved thunderstorms. They can turn our carefully crafted world into a shambles in literally minutes. They make me feel small and insignificant, a reminder that despite our arrogance, we are still at the mercy of elements we can’t control. I like that.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho