How Does Lightning Work?

Learn why we see giant bolts of electricity in the sky


“Lightning! Ask Your Questions Tonight (NASA, Marshall, 06/23/11)” by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

By: Thomas Sites, Journalist

Lightning used to be thought of as the work of gods, but with science people now know what causes these “acts of gods”.

What causes the spark?

How the electricity is generated is by little bits of frozen rain drops in big clouds bump into each other in the air. These collisions all cause a small electrical charges. When the cloud is filled with electrical charges the positive protons go to the top of the cloud and the negative electrons go to the bottom. Since opposites attract the to want to connect they use the air as a medium and that is what causes the spark.

“Lightning” by Bart van Stratum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Sheet lightning

Some people think that the lightning that strikes the ground is the only one, but there is another type. Sheet lightning happens in the clouds or between them. This strikes when there is a difference in the electrical charges in or between clouds. This causes a bright flash in the clouds like what you would see in the movies.

Fork lightning

“Lightning” by snowpeak is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is the most famous and iconic lightning type. Fork lightning is when the lightning strikes down from the clouds and strikes the ground. This lightning strikes because of the Protons in the ground concentrating (into often the tallest thing in the area) and trying to connect to the electrons in the bottom of the cloud. This lightning can be a straight bolt to one thing or “fork” out and strike multiple areas and give us the famous lightning bolt design.


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