The Different Types of Lightning
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The Different Types of Lightning

You might think there is just the one type of lightning you see. There are actually numerous types, from the familiar to lightning that flashes out the top of the thunderstorm, out into space.

You might think there is just the one type of lightning you see during the summer. There are actually numerous types, from the familiar to lightning that flashes out the top of the thunderstorm, out into space.

Cloud-to-Ground Lightning

Cloud-to-ground lightning is one type you normally see during a storm. Lightning is a giant electrical discharge between positive and negative electrons. As a storm moves over an area, the cloud can be charged with negative ions and the ground can be charged with the opposite positive ions. When it comes to electricity, opposites attract and when there is enough electrical difference between the cloud and the ground, you see this electrical discharge as lightning. The giant discharge is the lightning connecting with the oppositely polarized charge on the ground. This could be the ground itself, a tree, a house, a power pole or worse. Anything on the ground can build up a large and opposite electron charge, opposite of the cloud moving over. That is why you should get inside as soon as you hear thunder. Many times you will see lightning look like it is striking the same object many times. What you are seeing are the return strokes. The step leader which starts the bolt of lightning and the streamer coming off of the ground connecting to the step leader and return strokes. There can be as many as 20 return strokes. For a more in depth article, you can read Why Does Lightning Strike.

The video below is a slow motion shot that shows the many step leaders looking for a place to discharge (the path of least resistance) and then the streamer coming up from the ground to meet the step leader.


Cloud-to-Cloud Lightning

At night, cloud-to-cloud lightning is beautiful as it can light up the entire sky. Cloud-to-cloud lightning is the same principle as cloud-to-ground lightning. In this case, the positive and negative electrons are between clouds. When the positive and negative charges build up enough, they can discharge between clouds. Usually you can see the cracks of lightning inside the clouds and even coming out of the sides of a thunderstorm. Sheet lighting is another name for cloud-to-cloud lightning since it appears as sheets of light behind clouds or rain.

Ball Lightning

Is it lightning, a myth or some other electrical phenomena? No one knows exactly what ball lightning is, for centuries, people have reported seeing this and say that it starts right after a lightning strike. Those who have seen ball lightning say it is about the size of a baseball, maybe larger and makes a sizzling or the hissing sound of boiling water. Sometimes it floats through the air and other times it skitters along the ground. It glows at about the same brightness of a 100-watt light bulb. There have been reports that these balls have melted through glass, screens and walls as they float through the air. They last for an average of 25 seconds before fading away or sometimes dissipating with a small explosive sound.

In 2007, Dr. Pace VanDevender, a senior member of the IEEE and a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote an interesting paper on ball lightning. Here are a few of the characteristics of ball lightning according to Dr. VanDevender. 

  • It originates from nothing visible.
  • It is lethal or possibly lethal.
  • It contains an estimated 100,000 to 1 billion joules of energy.
  • Can penetrate walls, metal and glass without leaving a mark.
  • It can excavate tons of earth.

Scientists think that ball lightning is made of plasma clouds, which are charged atoms. When lightning strikes some surface, vapor is formed. This vapor condenses and mixes with oxygen, which then burns. Another theory is that it is made up of electrically charged water molecules. Other theories include tiny black holes, antigravity, radio frequency excitation and neutrinos.

An actual National Weather Service report from July 1874 of ball lightning in Denver, Colorado.

Sprite Lightning

Another beautiful and mysterious form of lightning is called sprites, gigantic jets and elves. A sprite is visible from the ground if a thunderstorm is far enough away and better visible when flying above the thunderstorms. In 1989, the Space Shuttle recorded sprites above thunderstorms in Australia.

Sprite lightning flashes from the top of the thunderstorm upwards into space and can travel as high as 50 miles (80 km) into the atmosphere. From the ground you can see this above the top of storms. Sprites are reddish pink in color and very fast, lasting from 3 to 10 milliseconds (.003 to .01 seconds). These sprites emit a strong electromagnetic pulse that could interact with the portion of the atmosphere called the ionosphere. The ionosphere is the area that bounces radio waves. Scientists are not sure if the sprite is a discharge that moves out from the top of a thunderstorm or is it an actual electrical discharge connecting the thunderstorm and the ionosphere.

Most scientists believe that sprites are associated with strong negatively charged lightning strikes. Other scientists think that conditions high in the atmosphere, like gravity waves or dust from meteors are the causes of sprites.

Sprite lightning.                 Walter Lyons, FMA Research, Fort Collins, Colorado                       

Lightning Safety

With more people and their video cameras trying to capture lightning, more people are being hit by lightning. Do not stand outside to record lightning. If you want to be a storm spotter, you have to learn safety.

© 2010 Sam Montana

References and Interesting Web Sites

Timelapse of sprites from the ground

NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The IEEE, Plasma Cosmology and Extreme Ball Lightning Wallace Thornhill,

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Comments (15)

Lightning is awesome. No wonder ancient Man thought it was a message from the gods.

Spectacular illustrations!

Awesome. I saw cloud to cloud lightening once.. it was eerie and beautiful.. the whole sky was alight and nothing was striking the ground.

Great article

Very cool.


Nothing compares to the forces of nature. If only we could harness it.

I gather there was place in Argentina that use to get up to 20,000 lightening (cloud to cloud) strikes a night. It all ended suddenly in January. freaky huh?

I would like to see a sprite one time. At night when a thunderstorm is moving further away and you can just barely see the top of the thunderstorm and flashing, look right above the thunderhead top and you could see a sprite. The are very fast, but if its dark enough you might see one. In the references of the article, there is a link to a video of sprites taken from the ground. You can see how fast they are.


The video above was freaken awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!Well im doin like a progect on lightning , but i cant really find what im lookin for but ill most likely find it thooooo SO THNX!!!

Sam, wow, this is really an exciting piece of work. The video is amazing.

I really like this article! :-)

Thank you Martin and Natasha. I just noticed the video is no longer available and that is a shame. I will find another slow motion lightning strike video like I have on my article Why Lightning Strikes.

I just replaced the slow motion video og lightning with a new one.

I am a storm watcher so enjoyed learning about lightening from your wise and informative article.