Space shuttle astronauts captured this 3-D overhead view of thunderstorms in south-central Brazil (about 200 kilometers west of Sao Paolo) in February 1984. Thunderstorms are an important mechanism for redistributing solar heat absorbed by the Earth's surface. Heating of the surface warms the lower atmosphere, and this warm moist air can be unstable and can rise to form clouds. In the right circumstances, such updrafts can reach 50 kilometers per hour. As this air rises, it cools and rain condenses out of the clouds. Thunderstorm updrafts reach heights of 13,500 meters (on average), where they encounter a thermal inversion (the tropopause) at the base of the stratosphere and are no longer buoyant. The cloud then spreads out laterally and forms the familiar anvil cloud. Sometimes the center of this updraft can overshoot the tropopause and form a small domical cloud at the top of the storm.
STS 41B images 41B-41-2342, 41B-41-2343.