What is lightning?
Lightning is a gigantic electrostatic discharge (the same kind of electricity that can shock you when you touch a doorknob) between the cloud and the ground, other clouds, or within a cloud. Scientists do not understand yet exactly how it works or how it interacts with the upper atmosphere or the earth 's electromagnetic field. Lightning is one of the oldest observed natural phenomena on earth. It has been seen in volcanic eruptions, extremely intense forest fires, surface nuclear detonations, heavy snowstorms, in large hurricanes, and obviously, thunderstorms.
What causes lightning?
The creation of lightning is a complicated process. We generally know what conditions are needed to produce lightning, but there is still debate about exactly how lightning forms.The exact way a cloud builds up the electrical charges that lead to lightning is not completely understood. Precipitation and convection theories both attempt to explain the electrical structure within clouds. Precipitation theorists suppose that different size raindrops, hail, and graupel get their positive or negative charge as they collide, with heavier particles carrying negative charge to the cloud bottom. Convection theorists believe that updrafts transport positive charges near the ground upward through the cloud while downdrafts carry negative charges downward. What follows is a summary of what we know.
Thunderstorms have very turbulent environments - strong updrafts and downdrafts occur often and close together. The updrafts carry small liquid water droplets from the lower regions of the storm to heights between 35,000 and 70,000 feet - miles above the freezing level. At the same time, downdrafts are transporting hail and ice from the frozen upper parts of the storm. When these particles collide, the water droplets freeze and release heat. This heat keeps the surface of the hail and ice slightly warmer than its surrounding environment, and a soft hail, or graupel forms.
When this graupel collides with additional water droplets and ice particles, a key process occurs involving electrical charge: negatively charged electrons are sheared off the rising particles and collect on the falling particles. The result is a storm cloud that is negatively charged at its base, and positively charged at the top.
Opposite charges attract one another. As the positive and negative areas grow more distinct within the cloud, an electric field is created between the oppositely-charged thunderstorm base and its top. The farther apart these regions are, the stronger the field and the stronger the attraction between the charges. But we cannot forget that the atmosphere is a very good insulator that inhibits electric flow. So, a HUGE amount of charge has to build up before the strength of the electric field overpowers the atmosphere's insulating properties. A current of electricity forces a path through the air until it encounters something that makes a good connection. The current is discharged as a stroke of lightning.
While all this is happening inside the storm, beneath the storm, positive charge begins to pool within the surface of the earth. This positive charge will shadow the storm wherever it goes, and is responsible for cloud-to-ground lightning. However, the electric field within the storm is much stronger than the one between the storm base and the earth 's surface, so about 75-80% of lightning occurs within the storm cloud.