From Glossary of Meteorology


Lightning is a transient, high-current electric discharge with pathlengths measured in kilometers.

The most common source of lightning is the electric charge separated in ordinary thunderstorm clouds (cumulonimbus). Well over half of all lightning discharges occur within the thunderstorm cloud and are called intracloud discharges. The usual cloud-to-ground lightning (sometimes called streak lightning or forked lightning) has been studied more extensively than other lightning forms because of its practical interest (i.e., as a cause of injury and death, disturbances in power and communication systems, and ignition of forest fires) and because lightning channels below cloud level are more easily photographed and studied with optical instruments. Cloud-to- cloud and cloud-to-air discharges are less common than intracloud or cloud-to-ground lightning. All discharges other than cloud-to-ground are often lumped together and called cloud discharges. Lightning is a self-propagating and electrodeless atmospheric discharge that, through the induction process, transfers the electrical energy of an electrified cloud into electrical charges and current in its ionized and thus conducting channel. Positive and negative leaders are essential components of the lightning. Only when a leader reaches the ground does the ground potential wave (return stroke) affect the lightning process. Natural lightning starts as a bidirectional leader, although at different stages of the process unidirectional leader development can occur. Artificially triggered lightning starts on a tall structure or from a rocket with a trailing wire. Most of the lightning energy goes into heat, with smaller amounts transformed into sonic energy (thunder), radiation, and light. Lightning, in its various forms, is known by many common names, such as streak lightning, forked lightning, sheet lightning, and heat lightning, and by the less common air discharge; also, the rare and mysterious ball lightning and rocket lightning. An important effect of worldwide lightning activity is the net transfer of negative charge from the atmosphere to the earth. This fact is of great important in one problem of atmospheric electricity, the question of the source of the supply current. Existing evidence suggests that lightning discharges occurring sporadically at all times in various parts of the earth, perhaps 100 per second, may be the principal source of negative charge that maintains the earth–ionosphere potential difference of several hundred thousand volts in spite of the steady transfer of charge produced by the air–earth current. However, there also is evidence that point discharge currents may contribute to this more significantly than lightning.
See also cloud-to-ground flash, intracloud flash lightning discharge.

Chalmers, J. A. 1957. Atmospheric Electricity. 235–255.

Schonland, B. F. J. 1950. The Flight of Thunderbolts. 152 pp.

Hagenguth, J. H. 1951. Compendium of Meteorology. 136–143.