From AMS Glossary
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The intense luminosity that propagates upward from earth to cloud base in the last phase of each lightning stroke of a cloud-to-ground discharge.
In a typical flash, the first return stroke ascends as soon as the descending stepped leader makes electrical contact with the earth, often aided by short ascending ground streamers. The second and all subsequent return strokes differ only in that they are initiated by a dart leader and not a stepped leader. It is the return stroke that produces almost all of the luminosity and charge transfer in most cloud-to-ground strokes. Its great speed of ascent (about 1 × 108 m s-1) is made possible by residual ionization of the lightning channel remaining from passage of the immediately preceding leader, and this speed is enhanced by the convergent nature of the electric field in which channel electrons are drawn down toward the ascending tip in the region of the streamer's electron avalanche. Current peaks as high as 3 × 105 A have been reported, and values of 3 × 104 A are fairly typical. The entire process of the return stroke is completed in a few tens of microseconds, and even most of this is spent in a long decay period following an early rapid rise to full current value in only a few microseconds. Both the current and propagation speed decrease with height. In negative cloud-to-ground flashes the return stroke deposits the positive charge of several coulombs on the preceding negative leader channel, thus charging earth negatively. In positive cloud-to-ground flashes, the return stroke deposits the negative charge of several tens of coulombs on the preceding positive leader channel, thus increasing positive charge on the ground. In negative cloud-to-ground flashes, multiple return strokes are common. Positive cloud-to-ground flashes, in contrast, typically have only one return stroke. The return streamer of cloud-to-ground discharges is so intense because of the high electrical conductivity of the ground, and hence this type of streamer is not to be found in air discharges, cloud discharges, or cloud-to-cloud discharges.
Hagenguth, J. H. 1951. Compendium of Meteorology. 137–141.