In an electrical storm, the storm clouds are charged like giant capacitors in the sky. The upper portion of the cloud is positive and the lower portion is negative. How the cloud acquires this charge is still not agreed upon within the scientific community, but the following description provides one plausible explanation.
In the process of the water cycle, moisture can accumulate in the atmosphere. This accumulation is what we see as a cloud. Interestingly, clouds can contain millions upon millions of water droplets and ice suspended in the air. As the process of evaporation and condensation continues, these droplets collide other moisture that is in the process of condensing as it rises. Also, the rising moisture may collide with ice or sleet that is in the process of falling to the earth or located in the lower portion of the cloud. The importance of these collisions is that electrons are knocked off of the rising moisture, thus creating a charge separation.
The newly knocked-off electrons gather at the lower portion of the cloud, giving it a negative charge. The rising moisture that has just lost an electron carries a positive charge to the top of the cloud. Beyond the collisions, freezing plays an important role. As the rising moisture encounters colder temperatures in the upper cloud regions and begins to freeze, the frozen portion becomes negatively charged and the unfrozen droplets become positively charged. At this point, rising air currents have the ability to remove the positively charged droplets from the ice and carry them to the top of the cloud. The remaining frozen portion would likely fall to the lower portion of the cloud or continue on to the ground. Combining the collisions with the freezing, we can begin to understand how a cloud may acquire the extreme charge separation that is required for a lightning strike.
When there is a charge separation in a cloud, there is also an electric field that is associated with the separation. Like the cloud, this field is negative in the lower region and positive in the upper region.
The strength or intensity of the electric field is directly related to the amount of charge buildup in the cloud. As the collisions and freezing continue to occur and the charges at the top and bottom of the cloud increase, the electric field becomes more and more intense -- so intense, in fact, that the electrons at the earth's surface are repelled deeper into the earth by the strong negative charge at the lower portion of the cloud. This repulsion of electrons causes the earth's surface to acquire a strong positive charge.
All that is needed now is a conductive path for the negative cloud bottom to contact the positive earth surface. The strong electric field, being somewhat self-sufficient, creates this path.
We'll look at the next stage of the lightning creation process, air ionization, next.