Thunder is the sound caused by lightning. Depending on the distance and nature of the lightning, thunder can range from a sharp, loud crack to a long, low rumble (brontide). The sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air surrounding and within a bolt of lightning. In turn, this expansion of air creates a sonic shock wave, similar to a sonic boom, which produces the sound of thunder, often referred to as a clap, crack, peal of thunder, or boom. The cause of thunder has been the subject of centuries of speculation and scientific inquiry. The first recorded theory is attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century BC, and an early speculation was that it was caused by the collision of clouds. Subsequently, numerous other theories were proposed. By the mid-19th century, the accepted theory was that lightning produced a vacuum. In the 20th century a consensus evolved that thunder must begin with a shock wave in the air due to the sudden thermal expansion of the plasma in the lightning channel. The temperature inside the lightning channel, measured by spectral analysis, varies during its 50 µs existence, rising sharply from an initial temperature of about 20,000 K to about 30,000 K, then dropping away gradually to about 10,000 K. The average is about 20,400 K (20,100 °C; 36,300 °F). This heating causes a rapid outward expansion, impacting the surrounding cooler air at a speed faster than sound would otherwise travel. The resultant outward-moving pulse is a shock wave, similar in principle to the shock wave formed by an explosion, or at the front of a supersonic aircraft.
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