Difference between Thunder and Lightning

By: | Updated: Dec-21, 2017

The difference between thunder and lightning still confuses many people. In fact, there are some who think that both are exactly the same thing. In addition, there are also misleading uses of thunder in popular media and literature. The Norse god of thunder Thor, for example, is portrayed to have the power over lighting yet not a hint of thunder-based prowess.

Summary Table

Thunder Lightning
Produced from lightning Caused by electrically charged clouds
Scary, but has little potential to cause damage Known to be lethal and cause house fires


Thunder is invisible but is generally represented by lightning

Thunder is the noise that is produced by and that follows lightning. It is characterized by a loud, rolling noise that seems to sweep across the sky. The sound is somewhat like successive sonic booms coming from planes passing by and is distinct and recognizable.

Lightning is widely used to represent thunder. This is because thunder is not visually perceptible, only aurally. Thunder is produced by lightning, so it makes perfect sense that it’s the closest representation. The sudden thermal expansion from the plasma produced by lightning is the reason why the roaring sound of thunder is produced.

Although it can be pretty scary, thunder isn’t particularly harmful. In rare instances, the worst it can do is temporarily damage hearing. This happens if lightning struck nearby, which means the clap of thunder is at its loudest and sharpest.

lightning strikes
Numerous lightning strikes

Lightning is one of the most awesome forces of nature. The zig-zagging path of highly concentrated bolts of electricity holds immense energy. Its surface is estimated to be several times hotter than the surface of the sun. Thankfully, it is relatively short-lived, which means it can only damage objects that it is able to make direct contact with.

Lightning is usually caused by the electrically charged parts of clouds. When two electrically charged clouds come into contact with one another, lightning is produced. If the lightning produced hits the ground, it’s called a “strike.” If the lightning is isolated among the clouds, it’s called a “flash.” In rare recorded cases, volcanic eruptions have caused lightning storms. But for the most part, it’s because of electrically charged regions of clouds.

The damage potential of lightning is unpredictable, especially since it’s difficult to determine where it will actually make contact with the ground. There have been a lot of recorded lightning strikes that hit people, yet some miraculously survived.

Thunder vs Lightning

So what’s the difference between thunder and lightning? Both of them manifest during a distinct atmospheric condition that’s characterized by dark clouds and foreboding heavy rains. But that’s practically where the similarity ends.

Lightning is the electrical discharge produced by the clash of electrically charged areas of two clouds. Thunder, on the other hand, is produced by lightning itself. One is the cause and the other is the effect.

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