Thermals are usually on one side of mountains, or another similar geological formation. The wind hits the lower portion of the mountains and the heat the wind picks up rises. This is one way a thermal updraft forms, another is just if there is a warmer air mass below a cooler one, thermal updrafts can occur. There’s not really a reliable way of predicting where they will be, although if you can find several whilst flying a glider, you can remain aloft for a couple hours. Birds use thermals to gain altitude quickly while searching for prey.
Although prediction is never 100% accurate, there are a variety of professions and hobbies that involve understanding where wind will go, including where thermals will rise. One of the major reasons for understanding these patterns is hunting; to sneak up on animals, you must know where the wind will be blowing at what time to avoid spreading your scent. There is no absolute method for thermal prediction in hunting, but it involves looking at the forecast, then paying attention to the terrain around your area, and the location and intensity of the sunlight. Generally, since hot air rises, you’re looking for the warming slope of a hill to see where the air will be rising quickly.
People who practice flying gliders also get very skilled at predicting where the next patch of rising air will be, largely by feeling the air movement as they glide, but also by looking at wind and weather forecasts. For the layman, a great way to see where a thermal is from the ground is by watching large birds. If they’re rising in a thermal, they will start to look smaller from the ground and will be moving without flapping their wings.
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