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!
Negative Cloud to Ground Lightning. Credit: NOAA
Positive Lightning. Credit: MD Weather