You know lightning when you see it, but did you know there are actually many different types of lightning?
Of course, all lightning is an electrical discharge caused by the charge imbalances between clouds and the ground, or cloud to cloud. When this imbalance strikes a tipping point, discharge of high voltage electricity during a short duration ensues.
Get to know the various types of lightning. Sheet lightning vs. forked lightning, cloud to air lightning, ribbon lightning, staccato lightning, cloud to cloud lightning, many types of lightning strikes exist, even cloudless lightning. Depending on numerous factors, including where the lightning originates, where it ends up, and what charge it carries, you can figure out how to identify several different types of lightning.
Touch the Ground for Good Luck
A common way to categorize types of lightning revolves around where the electrical charges are coming from, and where they are going.
At the beginning of cloud-to-ground (CTG) lightning situations, an invisible flow of weakly charged particles (referred to as a stepped leader) zigzag toward the earth in a forked pattern at an impressive speed of 200,000 mph. The stepped leader is essentially searching for the path of least resistance between the cloud and the ground before lightning strikes.
Branches of the CTG lightning are visible.
CTG lightning can be broken down into two primary types of lightning: positive and negative. A negative CTG (-CG) operates through a negatively charged stepped leader. It can be identified through its downward branching strike, which usually consists of multiple “return strokes”, or pulses of current that illuminate the channel again and again.
The -CG is attracted to a streamer, a tall positively charged object—often a tree or a pole. When these two connect, electric current flows toward the cloud at a rate of 60,000 mph. By doing this, the negative charge from the cloud is moved toward the ground in an attempt to create equilibrium.
Branches of the CTG lightning are visible. However, there are many other types of lightning that may not be.
The other group of CTG is positive (+CG). These are usually associated with supercell thunderstorms, as well as the flat rain clouds, or stratiform, that are behind a cold front squall.
Unlike -CG, this type of lightning can often be identified by a lack of branching. Some branching occurs at higher altitude, but for the most part, witnesses are aware of it as a single stroke of intense, bright lightning. It’s also possible to identify +CG by their loud, deep thunder.
The +CGs only account for about one in every 20 CTGs but are stronger and more destructive than -CGs.
+CGs can be identified from the lack of branching.
Consider the Look of Lightning
Though understanding negative and positive CTG is important for the scientist and meteorologist, it is also possible to categorize types of lightning by what you see as an interested observer. In this way, you can identify Staccato and Forked lightning, as well as a Bolt from the Blue.
Staccato lighting is CTG lightning comprising of a single, short-duration stroke, while Forked lightning splits and divides into two or more parts as it approaches the ground—sometimes looking like tree roots.
A “Bolt from the Blue” often travels a relatively large horizontal distance through clear skies from its source cloud. Then, it angles down and strikes the ground. This type of lightning typically comes from cumulonimbus clouds and can travel for miles into cloudless, blue skies before touching down. Hence, its name.
Additionally, when photographing lightning, you can capture Ribbon lightning, which is caused by strong winds blowing stepped leader channels for lighting sideways during the photo exposure.
A Bolt from the Blue can travel horizontally for miles before striking ground.
Lightning that Stays Inside the Cloud
Though CTG comprises the most iconic types of lightning, intracloud lightning is the most common type of lightning. In these cases, instead of electrical charges moving from a cloud to the ground, they simply bounce to a different part of the same cloud, moving to where there is a significant difference in charge.
It’s the same kind of situation that occurs when there are too many people on one side of a boat, and some need to move to the other side to help balance.
This type of lightning is also referred to as “sheet lightning” because it lights up the entire sky like a big, white sheet. However, intracloud should not be confused with cloud-to-cloud lightning.
The sky lights up when Sheet lightning strikes.
Lightning that Jumps From Cloud to Cloud
Cloud-to-cloud lightning is a rare type of lightning where an electrical charge imbalance exists between two or more separate storm clouds. Again, this should not be confused with intra-cloud lightning.
Lightning Into Thin Air
In the case of cloud-to-air lightning, a cloud discharges into the negatively-charged air around it but does not strike the ground or transfer the charge to another part of itself or another cloud. This lightning is often something you might also see when watching CTG lightning, though it can happen independently of CTG lightning strikes. Basically, all branches of CGT lightning that don’t touch the ground can be considered cloud-to-air lightning.
Lightning that Goes the Other Direction
Ground-to-cloud lightning, or upward moving lightning, is the opposite of CTG lightning. This type of lightning occurs when the discharge is initiated by an object on the ground, usually something tall, such as a skyscraper. Like CTG, it can carry a positive or negative charge.
Lightning in the Heat
Though often thought about as a distinct type of lightning, heat lightning is nothing more than one of the other types of lightning flashing very far away. In these cases, it is possible to see the lightning, but you don’t hear anything. You can’t hear anything because of how far away the storm is. Regardless of whether or not you can hear it, there is always thunder when there is lightning.
Heat lightning got its name because it often occurs during hot summer nights. It’s also a pretty good indicator that a storm is coming your way. Of course, no indicator is quite as accurate as a pocket-sized INO Weather Pro weather monitor, which gives you the capability of detecting lightning up to 40 miles away.
Though you might not hear the thunder when you see heat lightning, it’s definitely there.
Who Knows Sprites and Jets?
Large thunderstorms are capable of producing rare phenomena known as transient luminous events (TLEs). Though TLEs are not well understood by scientists, they have identified two types: red sprites and blue jets.
Sprites appear as vertical red columns above a cloud. They are fairly weak flashes of light that cannot be seen by the human eye. Blue jets, however, can be seen with the naked eye. Though they come from the top of a thunder cloud, there are records of pilots witnessing these strange TLEs.
Knowing The Various Types of Lightning
Though several types of lightning are not actually dangerous to people, it is important to be aware of all types of lightning and take precautions. For example, when witnessing CTG lightning, it is especially important to remain in a safe place.
It turns out that the average American has a one in 5,000 chance of being struck by lightning, while more than 2,000 people each year are killed by lightning. Though a few hundred survive being struck by lightning and are able to tell us what it feels like to be hit by lightning, it’s best to exercise caution and educate yourself about these power surges of electricity.