How do thermals affect the atmosphere and air currents? — RM, Praire Farm Schools, Wisconsin
Thermals are air currents in the atmosphere. When sunlight and exposure to warm ground raises the temperature of surface air, that air expands—its molecules travel faster and bounce against one another more vigorously, so they push themselves farther apart. This expanded air weighs less per cubic foot or meter than cooler air, so the cooler air around it lifts it upward in a rising current of warm air—a “thermal.” The air can’t simply accumulate way up overhead forever, so cooler air descends to take its place. The overall result is rising warm air and descending cool air. These air currents are part of giant circulation loops or “convection cells” that also include surface winds and high altitude winds.