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We had an extremely impressive thunderstorm last night, unprecedented for the fairly moderate Northern Virginia weather, and impressive probably in most places. I was glad not to be in a tent.

I was surprised by how many commenters on NextDoor found the thunder frightening. They specified the noise of the thunder as frightening, not the lightning, severe winds, torrential rain or modest hail, which most didn't even mention.

My first reaction was to dismiss them as silly. But then I wondered if thunder is known to have caused damage (from pressure differential) and, if so, under what circumstances. Exclude damage caused by people who are momentarily startled by a sudden clap of thunder and lose control of machinery or who slip and fall.

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    Regardless of the possibility of damage, I think it's not unreasonable to say one is frightened of the thunder (because it represents danger). One might also say that they are frightened of the roar of a tiger or the sound of a gun being fired, even though it's the teeth and bullets that are actually dangerous - not the sound.
    – tim
    Aug 7 at 15:15
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    Truly, it is not worth worry about anything posted on NextDoor. Aug 8 at 14:34
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    As a general rule, I think it's a bad idea to dismiss other people's fears as "silly" or ignorant if you don't share them. An ounce of empathy goes a long way when it comes to interpersonal relations. Aug 8 at 18:48
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    Even more generally, ridiculing other people's emotions burns bridges. The smugness of being right? - totally worth it. Seriously, though, I fear the tide unexpectedly going out and snow cracking and the gentle tremors of once dormant volcanoes. None of these things ever killed anybody, right?
    – user121330
    Aug 9 at 5:51
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    @Toby Speight Yes, it sounds plausible, and yes, that would count. However, see my comment under the last answer. To recap that comment: An avalanche expert in Alaska, in the book "Snowstruck", says that contrary to popular opinion, noise does not trigger avalanches. She does not specifically address thunder, however.
    – ab2
    Aug 20 at 13:10

3 Answers 3

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+150

Yes, and it apparently happened (article in German)

The paper reports from an incident in 2017 where a severe thunder blast destroyed windows. It has several images on what that looked like.

Bringing it together

The theories are not 100% confirmed, but the mostly accepted theory given in the Wikipedia article is that thunder is created by the massive and sudden increase of the temperature of the air surrounding the lightning (up to 30.000° C), which causes the air to expand its volume by a factor of 10 to 100. This then creates a shockwave and finally a blast. This effect is therefore comparable to a physical explosion, for instance caused by an exploding steam engine.

That such physical explosions can and have killed people is undoubted. My answer above has an instance of such an explosion causing (although minor) damage, but the other answers clearly state that it's very likely that standing to close to the source of a thunder may cause permanent hearing problems or even worse.

If somebody stood to close to the lightning, I'm assuming that would not be reported as "died of thunder", but more commonly as "died of lightning", even if the actual cause was not electrocution, but the effect of the shockwave. Whether the victim was also deaf afterwards, doesn't change anything, anyway.

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I can't address whether it's actually happened but it could:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thunder

In close proximity to the source, the sound pressure level of thunder is usually 165–180dB, but can exceed 200 dB in some cases.

That's way above the threshold to cause permanent hearing loss.

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    "That's way above the threshold to cause permanent damage" to what? Do you mean to human beings? How? Breaking eardrums? What is the threshold you are referring to?
    – terdon
    Aug 7 at 16:53
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    @terdon Yes, he is referring to the threshold for permanent hearing loss. The following infographic (northhillshearingandbalancecenter.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/…) claims that noise-induced hearing loss can be caused by listening to an 85dB sound for 8 hours, or a 127dB sound for 1 second.
    – Hari5000
    Aug 7 at 22:44
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    In close proximity to the source...meaning...you've just been hit by lightning? (For reference, Google says a gunshot is approximately 150-170 dB.) Aug 8 at 16:38
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    @user3067860 The bolt might have gone into something far more conductive--it would be possible to be very close without being fried. Aug 9 at 2:26
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    @terdon: yeah, I'd highly recommend that Loren edit the answer to include that or some other source for sound being physically damaging to human bodies, and/or to say hearing damage if that's what was meant. But still +1 for digging up a decibel number. By comparison, a fighter jet engine at full thrust can be up to 150 dB from 42 feet away, 45 degrees off axis (noisemonitoringservices.com/how-loud-is-a-jet-engine); dB is a log scale so 100 to 1000 times the power is a pretty big deal. Aug 9 at 16:28
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Not in this period of the year. But from Spring to Early summer, in the areas where there is still some snow a well placed thunder might trigger an avalanche.

Usually the warm water just takes away the upper layer of the snow cover, but if there are points where it can seep to the ground and weaken the hold from beneath, a thunder triggering an avalanche might be even more likely.

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    +1, however, a book I am rereading "Snowstruck" by Jill Fredston, who with her husband Doug Fesler, are leading avalanche experts based in Alaska, says that noise, contrary to popular opinion, does not cause avalanches. But clearly vibration does, as of a snowmobile or human footsteps, so it is not clear if a loud noise can or cannot cause an avalanche. A quick Google search refers to "vibration", as a cause but does not mention loud noises.
    – ab2
    Aug 8 at 18:39
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    @ab2 erm, sound is defined as a vibration - "sound is a vibration that propagates as an acoustic wave, through a transmission medium such as a gas, liquid or solid" Aug 8 at 19:02
  • @DavidPostill Yes, I acknowledged this elementary-school fact in my second sentence. I also mentioned pressure differential in the Q, and, of course, a sound wave is a periodic variation in the pressure of the conducting medium.
    – ab2
    Aug 9 at 0:56
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    @ab2, I think the dispute comes from two things: 1) "loud noise" is subjective. A human might consider a 100-dB jackhammer to be loud, while thunder in close proximity to a lightning strike might hit 180 dB, producing pressures 10,000 times higher. 2) Sound couples poorly from air to solid objects, so that while a footstep might be quieter than speaking, it produces more vibration in the snowpack.
    – Mark
    Aug 9 at 3:10

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