Types of Lightning

One of my favorite things to do in the summer is sit on the porch to watch lightning strike throughout the sky.  I never realized how many different types of lightning there are, because to me, it mostly looks the same.  However, there are many different types, most of which can be categorized into three main categories: cloud-to-ground lightning, ground-to-cloud lightning, and cloud-to-cloud lightning. 

These three categories are based on the electrical particles that create lightning.  Lightning is simply an atmospheric discharge of electricity.  In cloud-to-ground lightning, the discharge occurs between a cumulonimbus cloud and the ground.  In the ground to cloud, it is the opposite, and in cloud-cloud, the discharge occurs either between two clouds or between separate spots on the same cloud.

Cloud-to-ground lightning is one of the most common types of lightning.  It is also the most dangerous because since it actually strikes the ground, it causes damage to property, and it can even threaten lives.  There are four kinds of cloud-to-ground lightning.  The first one is bead lightning, which is fairly rare.  The lightning strike looks like a string of beads, because it breaks up into short, bright sections.  Another kind of cloud-to-ground lightning is ribbon lightning, which occurs when there are high cross winds.  The winds blow successive return strokes to the side, which creates a ribbon effect in the lightning.  Staccato lightning is another type of cloud-to-ground lightning, and it quickly appears as a very bright flash.  The final type of cloud-to-ground lightning is forked lightning, which is any lightning that displays branching.

Ground-to-cloud lightning is much less common, because it requires the lightning strike to come up from the ground, meet the positively charged  ion in the cloud, and then return to the ground as a return stroke.

Cloud-to-cloud lightning is more common, but because it occurs in the clouds, it is often harder for us to witness.  There are two kinds of cloud-to-cloud lightning: intercloud lightning and intracloud lightning.  Intercloud lightning is when the lightning occurs between two separate clouds.  Intracloud lightning occurs more frequently, and it is when lightning strikes between two different electric charges within the same cloud.    

There are also a few different types of lightning that do not fit neatly into any of the above categories.  Heat lightning occurs on clear nights, off in distances.  Basically, the storm is too far away to hear thunder, but the lightning can still be seen.  Dry lightning occurs when there is no actual precipitation with it, and this type of lightning often causes wildfires to begin.

Most of the different types of lightning are named after a specific characteristic that they possess, but I still don’t think I could look into the stormy summer sky and identify what kind of lightning I am seeing.  Perhaps with a little practice, and a little more research, one day I will be able to.