Severe Weather 101

Lightning Types

Lightning strikes the ground, the air, or inside clouds. There are roughly 5 to 10 times as many cloud flashes as there are cloud-to-ground flashes.

There are two types of ground flashes: natural (those that occur because of normal electrification in the environment), and artificially initiated or triggered. Artificially initiated lightning includes strikes to very tall structures, airplanes, rockets and towers on mountains. Triggered lightning goes from ground to cloud, while “natural” lightning is cloud to ground.

In cloud-to-ground lightning (CG), a channel of negative charge, called a stepped leader, will zigzag downward in roughly 50-yard segments in a forked pattern. This stepped leader is invisible to the human eye, and shoots to the ground in less time than it takes to blink. As it nears the ground, the negatively charged stepped leader is attracted to a channel of positive charge reaching up, a streamer, normally through something tall, such as a tree, house, or telephone pole. When the oppositely-charged leader and streamer connect, a powerful electrical current begins flowing. A return stroke of bright luminosity travels about 60,000 miles per second back towards the cloud. A flash consists of one or perhaps as many as 20 return strokes. We see lightning flicker when the process rapidly repeats itself several times along the same path. The actual diameter of a lightning channel is one-to two inches.

lightning features in storm clouds

Charge distribution in a typical storm cloud. [+]

A typical cloud-to-ground flash is a negative stepped leader that travels downward through the cloud, followed by an upward traveling return stroke. The net effect of this flash is to lower negative charge from the cloud to the ground. Less common, a downward traveling positive leader followed by an upward return stroke will lower positive charge to earth.


Cloud flashes sometimes have visible channels that extend out into the air around the storm (cloud-to-air or CA), but do not strike the ground. The terms sheet lightning or intra-cloud lightning (IC) refers to lightning embedded within a cloud that lights up as a sheet of luminosity during the flash. A related term, heat lightning, is lightning or lightning-induced illumination that is too far away for thunder to be heard. Lightning can also travel from cloud-to-cloud (CC). Spider lightning refers to long, horizontally traveling flashes often seen on the underside of stratiform clouds.

Lightning Mapping Arrays provide three-dimensional mapping of lightning channel segments over the array. Up to thousands of points can be mapped for an individual lightning flash to reveal its location and the development of its structure. Research LMAs exist in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, northern Alabama, Washington D.C., and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

What we do: NSSL uses the OKLMA to investigate how lightning characteristics relate to updrafts, precipitation, and severe storm processes. Scientists also use the OKLMA to investigate using lightning data in weather forecast models.

Large thunderstorms are capable of producing other kinds of electrical phenomena called transient luminous events (TLEs) that occur high in the atmosphere. They are rarely observed visually and not well understood. The most common TLEs include red sprites, blue jets, and elves.

Red Sprites can appear directly above an active thunderstorm as a large but weak flash. They usually happen at the same time as powerful positive CG lightning strokes. They can extend up to 60 miles from the cloud top. Sprites are mostly red and usually last no more than a few seconds, and their shapes are described as resembling jellyfish, carrots, or columns. Because sprites are not very bright, they can only be seen at night. They are rarely seen with the human eye, so they are most often imaged with highly sensitive cameras.

Blue jets emerge from the top of the thundercloud, but are not directly associated with cloud-to-ground lightning. They extend up in narrow cones fanning out and disappearing at heights of 25-35 miles. Blue jets last a fraction of a second and have been witnessed by pilots.

Elves are rapidly expanding disk-shaped regions of glowing that can be up to 300 miles across. They last less than a thousandth of a second, and occur above areas of active cloud to ground lightning. Scientists believe elves result when an energetic electromagnetic pulse extends up into the ionosphere. Elves were discovered in 1992 by a low-light video camera on the Space Shuttle.

transient luminous events

An illustration of different kinds of transient luminous events (TLEs) [+]