It’s fast, it’s a million volts furious, and it comes without warning. Of course, we’re talking about lightning. But not all lightning is the same — you can often identify which type of lightning is in the sky by its appearance and other atmospheric factors.
6 Types of Lightning
Air is a poor conductor of electricity, so a great deal of potential energy must build up between positive and negative charges to overcome the air’s resistance and create a lightning strike. Lightning typically needs over 1 million volts of potential to complete the circuit, and a shorter distance from cloud to the ground makes it easier for lightning to strike. The cycle may repeat thousands of times in an electrically active thunderstorm.
Cloud-to-Ground (CG) Lightning
Cloud-to-ground lightning begins when electrical charges in the cloud base collect and then move down an invisible path toward the ground called a stepped leader. Meanwhile, positive charges are gathering at the earth’s surface and moving upward in a shorter path called a streamer. The connection occurs above the ground, where lightning instantaneously and violently completes the circuit, briefly joining the cloud and ground electrically.
Negative Cloud-to-Ground (-CG) Lightning
Negative cloud-to-ground is the most common type of CG lightning. Once the flash illuminates, you’ll see many forks, called branching. Sometimes lightning will appear to shoot out of a cloud straight into clear air, but in reality, the bolt bends downward at some point to touch the ground and complete the circuit.
Positive Cloud-to-Ground (+CG) Lightning
Another form of CG lighting is positive CG. This is where the current flows in the opposite direction of negative CG lightning and from higher in the storm cloud. These strikes typically produce a single intense bolt, and they may rapidly-fire along the same pathway many times without branching. Requiring a higher amount of energy than other types of lightning, positive CG lightning is more often produced by severe storm clouds that are at higher levels in the atmosphere, which provide the lightning strikes the energy they need to reach the ground.
Cloud-to-Cloud (CC) Lightning
CC lighting travels between two separate clouds. It can be tough to tell when the weather is overcast, but generally, a very long bolt through the sky will be cloud to cloud. The world record for a CC lightning strike happened over Brazil on Halloween night in 2018, when a strike traveled 440 miles!
Intra-cloud lightning occurs when the current travels within the same cloud as it connects areas of differing charge, causing various portions of the same cloud to light up. Sheet and heat lightning are common types of intra-cloud lightning.
Ball lightning is a bluish-white or yellow electrified sphere that floats in the air or along the ground. It usually lasts between five to 10 seconds and often has a burning smell of sulfur along the way. Ball lightning has been documented for centuries, but we are still trying to learn what causes this unexplained phenomenon. There are many theories, such as tiny floating particles that act as a battery or a big ball of compressed air emitting light from charged particles. Many people don’t believe that ball lightning even exists, and they argue that it’s just a hallucination. Crazy stuff!
Transient Luminous Events
In addition to typical lightning strikes, thunderstorms can also produce what are called transient luminous events. These are electrical currents that occur high in the atmosphere and can rarely be seen from the ground. In fact, it was the International Space Station that allowed scientists to learn more about them.
During these events, lightning strikes shoot upward from the top of thunderstorms and extend into the atmosphere. The crazy electrical spurts come in three main types, known as sprites, jets, and giants. They never strike the ground and are typically above altitudes where planes fly.
Stay Ahead of Lightning Danger
AcuRite offers both permanent home weather stations that track lightning strikes and portable lightning detectors. Don’t get caught off guard — know where the trouble is and stay ahead of it with a quality weather monitoring tool that includes lightning alerts. Keep an eye on the sky!
Steve LaNore is a certified broadcast meteorologist with more than 30 years’ forecasting and technical experience. He has provided meteorological consulting for everyone from insurance adjusters to courts and is a nine-time award-winning author and broadcaster. He has authored two books, available on Amazon. He resides in north Texas near beautiful Lake Texoma.