How Lightning Works

By: John Zavisa & Jesslyn Shields  | 

Types of Strikes and Types of Lightning

Wild cloud-to-cloud lightning illuminates the night sky. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Types of Lightning Strikes

There are several different types of lightning strikes:

  • Cloud to ground — Negatively charged particles are drawn toward the positive particles on the ground.
  • Ground to cloud — The same as cloud-to-ground lightning, except the strike is initiated by a usually a tall, earth-bound object rather than the cloud.
  • Cloud to cloud — Similar mechanics to ground-to-cloud lightning, except the strike travels from one cloud to another

Types of Lightning

There are several different types of lightning:


  • Sheet lightning — This is normal lightning that is reflected in the clouds.
  • Heat lightning — This is normal lightning near the horizon that is reflected by high clouds.
  • Ball lightning — A phenomenon where lightning forms a slow, moving ball that can burn objects in its path before exploding or burning out.
  • Red sprite — A red burst of electricity that occurs about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above storm clouds. Shaped like carrot tops, crowns or even jellyfish, they're bright enough to see in daylight.
  • Blue jet — Occuring early in a thunderstorm, blue jets are bright, blue sprays of electricity that originate in the center of a storm cloud about 25 miles (40 kilometers) above the ground. Sometimes blue jets are observed closer to the ground, and the sprays are shorter. These are called blue starters.
  • Elves — Discovered in the early 1990s, elves are huge — 185-mile-wide (300-kilometer-wide) — halos of ring-shaped lightning, created in the upper, positively charged portion of the cloud.

In the next section, we'll learn about the purpose of lightning rods.