The Lightning Process: Keeping in Step

Lightning can be divided into two types:
  • Flashes with at least one channel connecting the cloud to the ground, known as "cloud-to-ground" discharges (CG); and
  • Flashes with no channel to ground, known as "in-cloud" (IC), "cloud-to-cloud" (CC), or "cloud-to-air" (CA).

The lightning process is more or less the same for both types.

Step 1

The stepped leaderA typical CG lightning strike initiates inside the storm. Under the influences of the electric field between the cloud and the ground, a very faint, negatively charged channel called a "stepped leader" emerges from the storm base and propagates toward the ground in a series of steps about 50 meters (160 feet) in length and 1 microsecond (0.000001 seconds) in duration.

In what can be loosely described as an "avalanche of electrons", the stepped leader usually branches out in many directions as it approaches the ground, carrying an EXTREMELY strong electric potential: about 100 MILLION volts with respect to the ground and about 5 coulombs of negative charge.

Between each step there is a pause of about 50 microseconds, during which the stepped leader "looks" around for an object to strike. If none is "seen", it takes another step, and repeats the process until it "finds" a target.

It takes the stepped leader about 50 milliseconds (1/20th of a second) to reach its full length, though this number varies depending on the length of its path. Studies of individual strikes have shown that a single leader can be comprised of more than 10,000 steps!

Step 2

Stepped leader inducing streamers
As the stepped leader approaches the ground, its strong, negative charge repels all negative charge within the immediate strike zone of the earth's surface, while attracting vast amounts of positive charge. The influx of positive charge into the strike zone is so strong that the stepped leader actually induces electric channels up from the ground known as "streamers".

When one of these positively charged streamers connects with a negatively charged stepped leader (anywhere from 100 to 300 feet (30 to 100 meters) above the surface of the earth), the following steps occur in less than 100 microseconds.

Step 3

Connection with the ground is made
The electric potential of the stepped leader is connected to the ground and the negative charge starts flowing DOWN the established channel.

Step 4

The return stroke, what we see when lightning flashes
An electric current wave, called a "return stroke", shoots UP the channel as a brilliant pulse. Behind the wave front, electric charge flows up the channel and produces a ground current. It takes the current about 1 microsecond to reach its peak value, which averages around 30,000 amperes.

The "return stroke" produces more than 99% of a lightning bolt's luminosity and is what we see as lightning. The stroke actually travels FROM the ground INTO the cloud, but because the strike takes place so quickly, to the unaided eye is appears the opposite is true.

Shot with a high speed video camera, this video (right) shows a highly branched step leader approaching the ground. When one branch of the stepped leader makes a connection, a very bright return stroke surges upward through the channel.

The actual time between the appearance of the stepped leader in the cloud until the return stroke is about 1/133 of a second. I real time, all one would be able to see is the return stroke (bright flash) and never see the dart leaders progression toward the ground.

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Step 5

Dart leader generally uses the same channel created by the stepped leaderAfter the return stroke ceases flowing up the channel, there is a pause of about 20 to 50 milliseconds. After that, if enough charge is still available within the cloud, another leader can propagate down to the ground. This leader is called a "dart leader" because it uses the channel already established by the stepped leader and therefore has a continuous path.

Dart leaders give lightning its flickering appearance and normally are not branched like the initial stepped leader. Go to the lightning stroke animationNot every lightning flash will produce a dart leader because sufficient charge to initiate one must be available within about 100 milliseconds of the initial stepped leader. Click on the image at right to see a lightning stroke animation.

The dart leader carries additional electric potential to the ground and induces a new streamer from the ground. The dart leader's peak current is usually less than the initial stepped leader and its return stroke has a shorter duration than the initial return stroke. As additional dart leaders are produced, their peak currents and return stroke durations continue to decrease.

Dart leaders and their return strokes don't necessarily have to use the same cloud-to-ground channel that was burned by initial stepped leader. If a dart leader takes a different path to the ground, the lightning will appear to dance from one spot to another. This is known as "forked lightning".

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