All The Different Kinds Of Lightning

“The trouble ain’t that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.” —Mark Twain

In A Nutshell

Throughout the centuries, lightning has been mistaken for many things, from UFOs to the spirits of the dead. There are so many different kinds of lightning that it’s not surprising that sometimes people just don’t recognize it for what it is. In addition to the most common lightning that accompanies thunderstorms, there’s also the ball lightning that many see as a UFO, the jellyfish-like red sprites, blue jets that are more often seen from the sky than from the ground, and the rather disturbing dark lightning, that you may have been hit by without knowing it.

The Whole Bushel

For some people, thunderstorms are terrifying; for others, they’re an amazing display of the power of nature. We’re all pretty familiar with the lightning that goes along with most thunderstorms. (And if you live in Venezuela, you’re really, really familiar with it.) There are many different types of lightning, though, and some of them you might have seen without recognizing—or been exposed to without seeing.

The type of lightning that you probably associate with thunderstorms is called cloud-to-ground lightning, and it’s a negatively charged bolt that heads for the ground and is attracted to positively charged things there. (Heat lightning occurs when cloud-to-ground lightning happens far enough away that you can’t hear the thunder that goes along with it.) There’s also cloud-to-cloud lightning that never reaches the ground, and intra-cloud lightning that never leaves the cloud it originates in.

Sometimes, lightning has a positive charge, especially when it begins from the top of a storm cloud. When that happens, it travels along the horizon instead of coming straight to the ground, and it’s given the pretty nifty name of a bolt from the blue.

If you’ve ever seen the upper skies illuminated by a reddish flash, that’s another type of lightning called a red sprite. They’re often red as their name suggests, but they don’t have to be—and the illumination tends to last several seconds, which is much longer than most other types of lightning. Only the brightest of these are ever seen, and when they are, they’re described as looking like giant jellyfish rising from the top of the storm.

Blue jets are another type of lightning you might have seen without knowing it, especially if you fly a lot. Blue jets also shoot upward from the storm clouds, and only last for a fraction of a second. In that time, they can travel more than 40 kilometers (25 mi) above their point of origin.

If you’re a frequent flyer, you’ve probably also been exposed to dark lightning, a pretty recently explored phenomenon. You’re not going to see dark lightning, as it only lasts about 10–100 microseconds, and only occasionally gives off a telltale purple hue. What it does give off is radiation—about the same amount of radiation you’re exposed to when you get a CT scan at the hospital. It’s not a horribly scary amount, but dark lightning is most common in the same altitudes that airlines fly at, making it a potential concern.

And high above that level are the elves: massive, disk-shaped pulses of lightning that were only discovered by space shuttle cameras in 1992.

Lightning doesn’t need to be in the ionosphere in order to be mysterious, and scientists are still trying to figure out just what the heck ball lightning is and how it works. Only recently created in laboratory conditions, wild ball lightning is commonly associated with thunderstorms, but it’s also associated with other, more mystical things. It’s thought that many, many UFO sightings were actually ball lighting, as it can travel across the sky, come and go in seconds, and appear in a number of different colors. Ball lightning has also been named as a culprit in sightings of spirit lights and will-o’-the-wisps, which tend to happen over marshy areas and are said to be the evil spirits. Currently, we know that ball lightning exists, but we’re not quite sure how it’s formed and why it happens, proving that some types of lightning are just as mysterious as they were centuries ago.

Show Me The Proof

National Severe Storms Laboratory: Lightning Types
Discovery: Dark Lightning Zaps Airline Passengers
LiveScience: Mysterious Ball Lightning Created in the Lab
Mysterious Britain & Ireland: Will o’ the Wisp
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Severe Weather Safety Guide—Lightning

  • Lisa 39

    Yay lightning! I didn’t know about some of these so I learned something new today! Awesome article Debra!

    • Hotblack Desiato

      Lightning is bad! My great-grandmother was struck by lightning in British Columbia in 1922, her blonde hair fell out and when it grew back, she was a red head! For the rest of her life after that, anytime a thunderstorm approached, she hid in the closet, too scared to come out until the storm passed.

      • Lisa 39

        Jeez, I don’t blame her for hiding after that, I like to watch them from far away but there is such a thing as to close for comfort.

      • Hillyard

        Red heads are hotter than blondes anyway so it wasn’t a total loss.

    • Awesome article Debra!

  • Hillyard

    Dark lightening? Sounds like something out of the Marvell universe.

  • oouchan

    I love thunderstorms. I love watching them, being in them….it’s very thrilling. I had no idea of the different types of lightning having names. I knew there were variations on color, speed and where they start, but not the names. Thought it was just lightning.
    I’ve been following a guy by the name of Mike (think last name is Hollingshead…spelled wrong I’m sure) and he is a storm chaser. Found him about the same time I landed on listverse. He has taken the most amazing shots of storms I’ve ever seen. One of his most famous is still used widely today. It was a supercell storm in Nebraska. Here is the site where the photo is.

    Cool info.

  • TheMadHatter