Thunderstorms can illuminate the sky with a number of different types of lightning. The most threatening to us at the surface, however, is the cloud to ground variety. Interestingly, it comes in two forms: positive and negative.
While not completely understood, lightning – an intense electrical discharge – is believed to form as a result of the separation of charges in a cumulonimbus cloud. Within these towering clouds, both negatively charged hailstones and positively charged ice-crystals exist at the same time. As the storm’s updraft moves through the cloud, the lighter ice-crystals are carried upward, leaving the denser hailstones to fall to the bottom.
As the negative charge builds at the base of the cloud, it induces a strong positive charge on the ground, especially in tall objects such as buildings and trees. When the charge separation becomes large enough, a negatively charged stepped leader, a channel of ionized air, initiates a lightning strike from the base of the cloud. Moving down toward the ground, it meets a channel of rising positive charges known as a streamer. When they connect, they form negative cloud to ground lightning (-CG), which is the most common type.
Positively charged lightning (+CG), on the other hand, originates in the upper section or anvil of a cumulonimbus cloud. In this case, the descending stepped leader carries a positive charge and travels horizontally as it makes its way toward an area with negatively charged particles on the ground. It can travel more than 10 miles – a distance where thunder from the parent storm cannot be heard – to areas with relatively clear skies. For this reason, positive lightning is often called a “bolt from the blue”. It is most often associated with super cell thunderstorms and is considered rare. According to NOAA, it makes up less than 5% of all lightning strikes.
While uncommon, positive lightning is extremely powerful. Originating at a higher level of a storm cloud, it has to travel through more air to reach the ground, intensifying its electrical field. Its peak charge can be 10 times greater than that of a negative strike. This immense power combined with a lack of warning makes positive cloud to ground lightning particularly dangerous. It is also believed to be responsible for a large percentage of wildfires.
To visually identify positive and negative cloud to ground lightning, look at the shape of the bolt. Negative lightning will have a downward branching pattern and positive lightning will generally display a single bright stroke without branches.
Regardless of these differences in charge and shape, it is important to remember that all lightning is dangerous. Stay safe!