Types of Lightning

In his book Extreme Weather, H. Michael Mogil, quotes famous author Mark Twain by stating, “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does all the work”.

Lightning is indeed a most magnificent force. Simply put, this natural phenomenon is a sudden flash of light caused by an electrical discharge. It is a gigantic spark that is quite similar in nature to the small shock that is sometimes felt when taking extremely dry clothing out of a dryer. However, a lightning discharge, also referred to as a flash, is of course much more powerful!

During thunderstorms, electrical charges build up in cumulonimbus clouds (dark, puffy storm clouds). The positive and negative charges are attracted to each other. When opposing electrically charged particles move toward each other, an electrical discharge occurs that causes the tremendous spark known as lightning.

According to Reader’s Digest Weather, different types of lightning can occur depending on the location of opposing electrical charges both within and around the cloud. The four most common occurrences of lightning are: 1) cloud-to-air lightning, 2) lightning within a cloud, 3) cloud-to-cloud lightning, and 4) cloud-to-ground lightning. These are all considered natural forms of lightning and occur because of normal electrification in the environment.

These are some of the various types of lightning that can occur all over the planet:

Streak or forked lightning – appears with many branches along the main channel and makes an awesome sight. This is the most commonly seen type of lightning.

Sheet lightning – occurs when strong winds blow the lightning channel. The electrical discharge can occur between positive and negative centers within the cloud or between charge centers of opposite sign in neighboring clouds.

Ball lightning – exists as a glowing ball-like mass that slowly moves along near the ground.

Pearl necklace lightning (also called chain or bead lightning) – rare form of lightning. The brightness seen along the lightning path varies in intensity which gives the flash the appearance of beads on a string.

Artificially initiated lightning – also referred to as “triggered” lightning and according to author Mogil, “includes strikes to very tall structures, airplanes, rockets, and towers on mountains”. Triggered lightning makes up a very small percentage of all lightning strikes.

Lightning can occur anywhere on the planet. Mogil points out that there are approximately one hundred lightning discharges each and every second. Due to the fact that a lightning strike can be extraordinarily dangerous, extreme caution should always be exercised whenever lightning is near or approaching. However, when viewed from a safe location, lightning flashes can create awesome sky shows that are sure to thrill the senses and fill one with both a sense of astonishment and wonder.  


Mogil, H. Michael. (2007). Extreme Weather. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

Reader’s Digest. Weather: New York/Montreal: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.