What is a Cloudburst?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cloudburst is a sudden rainfall which can be quite unexpected, very abrupt, and rather drenching. In some cloudbursts, up to 5 inches (almost 13 centimeters) of rain can fall in an hour, often in the form of extremely large droplets. Cloudbursts are especially common in the tropics, although they can occur anywhere, and they are often accompanied with thunder. They are also highly unpredictable, by nature, which can be very frustrating for weather agencies.

A sudden, drenching rainfall may be referred to as a cloudburst.
A sudden, drenching rainfall may be referred to as a cloudburst.

The term "cloudburst" is the result of the fanciful idea that clouds are filled with water. Historically, some people believed that clouds were essentially like balloons, with solid membranes filled with liquid. In a cloudburst, these balloons would literally burst, pouring torrents of rain out. Although this theory has since been disproved, the term has stuck.

Cloudbursts may cause flooding.
Cloudbursts may cause flooding.

Typically, extremely high clouds are involved in a cloudburst, most classically cumulonimbus clouds. The hard rain characteristic of a cloudburst is caused by a phenomenon known as Langmuir precipitation, in which drops of rain fuse together to create large drops as they fall, falling every more quickly as they grow. Sometimes, the rain in a cloudburst falls so fast and is so large that it is actually a bit painful.

Cloudbursts may be welcomed by farmers because of the thorough irrigation of their crops.
Cloudbursts may be welcomed by farmers because of the thorough irrigation of their crops.

Because of the amount of rain involved, a cloudburst can be quite dangerous, especially if it persists for several hours. Flooding is common with cloudbursts, and in areas with arroyos, washes, and other gullies, these geological features can quickly fill with water, sweeping away any people and animals which might be inside. Flooding can also render streets unusable, and in extreme cases it can shut down an entire city, as people struggle to cope with the influx of water.

The high clouds involved in a cloudburst cause rain drops to fuse together creating larger rain drops.
The high clouds involved in a cloudburst cause rain drops to fuse together creating larger rain drops.

Often, these severe rainstorms appear in the summer, and in farming communities, they are sometimes welcomed, as a cloudburst can irrigate crops very thoroughly. Most people try to avoid being caught out in the weather, however, as they would otherwise be drenched to the skin. Drownings have also been linked with cloudbursts, even without widespread flooding, because people can become disoriented when caught outside in severe weather.

Cloudbursts are hard for even experienced meteorologists to predict.
Cloudbursts are hard for even experienced meteorologists to predict.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

skiku

Cloudbursts are predictable. In early October, in Pune, India a cloudburst was predicted by one meteorologist (Scientist) Kiran Kumar Johare. He predicted and gave information in the afternoon saying that there would be definite cloudbursts in Pune in the Pashan area, and he also informed the higher administration authorities too, and newspapers also gave coverage for his prediction. It happened at the same location.

So cloudbursts can be predictable. He was studying cloudbursts thoroughly and working in the Indian Institute of tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pashan, Pune, India. He also explained the scientific cases systematically how a cloudburst occurred in Pune in late September in the NDA-Khadakwasla area of Pune. Hence cloudbursts are clearly predictable phenomena

empanadas

@abiane - Cloudbursts themselves are not predicted, no. While you can have a certain percentage for rain that day let's say, you won't typically be hearing a Meteorologist saying things like, "Be on the look out for Cloudbursts this afternoon." So if it is looking like rain, you might just want to be prepared with an umbrella - that and really research the potential for cloudbursts in your area; we actually get them a lot here in East Texas and they drive me nuts!

abiane

@empanadas - Do you know if Cloudbursts are typically foreseen like the "regular" weather is or are they sporadic and un-trackable?

empanadas

@ellaesans - You can actually find a lot of information around wiseGEEK about storms and such, but as far as a cloudburst goes, you shouldn't need much more than what is given in this article. Aside from the mentioned forms, cloudbursts can also be coupled with hail as well... which can make for a particularly nasty outcome.

ellaesans

@anon87063 - You can find the words "monsoon" and "cloudburst" directly linked in a thesaurus - so, yes, you could consider them the same thing. Most of the information you will find on "cloudburst" will actually musical information for groups like Oasis and Whiteacre as they have songs with this title.

anon87063

In arizona-in summer-we have what are called monsoons-same thing? except it's kind of refreshing when you just step outside and into it for a few. Phoenix area.

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