Lighting Bolts: Types of Lightning



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During the summer thunderstorm season, not all of the fireworks you will see this month are manmade. The skies will be filled with light—and many types of lightning!

As my previous post on lightning noted, those lights are spectacular electric sparks. The collision of ice and slush churning in a thundercloud builds up static electricity. The slush near the bottom of the cloud builds up a negative charge while the tiny ice crystals carried to the top become positive. Finally, the charges equal out—BANG!

The charge flows somewhere and about 25% of the time it hits the ground. The rest of the time, it explodes in the air and the skies light up. Sometimes, the lightning and lights are very weird—forming red sprites, blue jets, or even elves.

There are different types of lightning—some quiet weird! Source: NOAA

Most lightning flashes in the air, rather than striking the ground. You see the clouds light up and hear the thunder.

  • The majority of these flashes are “heat lightning” with the electricity flowing between the top and bottom of a cloud, making the whole thundercloud glow.
  • The next most common is the “anvil crawlers” and the electricity sparks from cloud to cloud.

Three fourths of all lightning stays in the sky, even soaring up toward space. Source: Wikipedia

  • Then there are sparks that flare straight up towards space. For more than two hundred years, scientists dismissed these types of lightning as nonexistent. Then, on July 6, 1989, scientists from the University of Minnesota accidentally captured the first image of the glowing red lightning dancing high in the air. They named the “nonexistent” lightning a sprite, after fairy-tale air sprites.

A circle of red sprites dancing 50 miles high in the sky. Source: Wikipedia

Since then other forms of lightning have been found and given exotic names—blue jets, red sprites, elves, trolls and even tiny gnomes. The area above storms can get very strange.

Summer is the season to see these rare forms of sky lightning (especially in July). Some of the best sightings are in the Midwest and Great Plains. So go outside and look up—the skies are filled with “magical” lights.


About This Blog

Evelyn Browning Garriss doesn't just blog about the weather forecast; she provides insight on WHY extreme weather is happening--and a heads up on weather to watch out for. A historical climatologist, Evelyn blogs about weather history, interesting facts about the weather, and upcoming climate events that affect your life--from farming to your grocery bill. Every week, we look forward to another great weather column from Evelyn. We encourage our weather watchers to post their comments and questions--and tell us what they think!


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