Are there different types of lightning?

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Are there different types of lightning?
lightning in night sky touches down on lighted city
Photo: Lightning photo from Shutterstock

Lightning is a huge electrical discharge that results from the rising and sinking air motions that occur in thunderstorms. Lightning can be either connect from one cloud to another, or shoot from a cloud down to the ground. Lighting also has different appearances and is always accompanied by thunder.

Types of cloud-to-ground lightning include staccato, forked, ribbon, and bead lightening.

Staccato lightning is a strike which is a short-duration stroke that often, but not always, appears as a single very bright flash and often has considerable branching.

Forked lightning is a name, not in formal usage, for cloud-to-ground lightning that exhibits branching of its path.

Ribbon lightning occurs in thunderstorms with high cross winds and multiple strokes. The wind will blow each successive stroke slightly to one side of the previous stroke, causing a ribbon appearance.

Bead lightning appears to break up into a string of short, bright sections. It is relatively rare.

Another lightning phrase you may have heard is heat lightning. Heat lightning is a common name for a lightning flash that appears to produce no discernible thunder because it occurs too far away for the thunder to be heard. All lightning produces thunder, if a person doesn’t hear it, it is because the sound waves dissipate before they reach the observer.

During the past two decades scientists have discovered and confirmed the existence of lightning that shoots upward into the upper atmosphere from thunderstorms. Red lightning bolts can extend upward from clouds to near the top of the atmosphere. The red bolts, however, are too quick and weak to be seen by the naked eye. Blue jets, in contrast, are limited to the stratosphere and last long enough to be seen by pilots.

Steven A. Ackerman and Jonathan Martin are professors in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW-Madison, are guests on the Larry Meiller‘s WHA-AM radio show the last Monday of each month at 11:45 a.m.