This photo shows a dramatic lightning display over the plains east of Boulder, CO.
Click on image for full size
Image Courtesy of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/Carlye Calvin

Types of Lightning

Lightning can take place in several different areas of a thunderstorm. Most lightning (about 80%) occurs within a single cloud and is called cloud-to-cloud lightning. Most of the other 20% of lightning involves a stroke from the cloud to the ground. Damage is usually caused where the lightning strikes the ground. And sometimes lightning can jump from one cloud to another or to the surrounding air.

Most of the lightning we see appears as a single line of bright white light, called streak lightning. However, several other types of lightning can occur.

Forked lightning occurs when a second lightning stroke doesn't follow the same path as the first lightning stroke. It usually follows a zigzagging pattern and appears forked with many branches. Forked lightning can go from cloud-to-ground, cloud-to-cloud, or cloud-to-air.

Ribbon lightning occurs in thunderstorms with high cross winds and multiple strokes of lightning. Winds separate the strokes of the lightning bold, making it look like there are parallel streaks of light. This is a form of cloud-to-ground lightning.

Bead lightning is a relatively rare form of lightning. In bead lightning, the stroke appears to break up into a string of short, bright sections, and looks like a string of beads. This is a form of cloud-to-ground lightning.

Sheet lightning occurs when the actual bolt or flash of lightning is hidden behind the clouds. When sheet lightning occurs the entire sky flashes a glowing white color. This is a form of cloud-to-cloud lightning.

Heat lightning occurs within a cloud, but the observer is too far away from the storm for its thunder to be heard. The sound waves dissipate before reaching the observer. Instead of individual strokes, heat lightning often lights up the entire cloud. This is a form of cloud-to-cloud lightning.

Last modified May 27, 2010 by Becca Hatheway.

You might also be interested in:


Clouds can come in all sizes and shapes, and can form near the ground or high in the atmosphere. Clouds are groups of tiny water droplets or ice crystals in the sky and are formed by different processes....more

Forked Lightning

Forked lightning occurs when a second lightning stroke doesn't follow the same path as the first lightning stroke. Thus, it appears forked....more

Stationary Fronts

A stationary front forms when a cold front or warm front stops moving. This happens when two masses of air are pushing against each other but neither is powerful enough to move the other. Winds blowing...more

Warm Fronts

A warm front is where a warm air mass is pushing into a colder air mass. Warm fronts move more slowly than cold fronts because it is more difficult for the warm air to move against the cold, dense air....more

Cold Fronts

A cold front is where a cold air mass is pushing into a warmer air mass. Cold fronts can produce dramatic changes in the weather. They move fast, up to twice as fast as a warm front. Cold air is dense...more

Occluded Fronts

Sometimes a cold front follows right behind a warm front. A warm air mass pushes into a colder air mass (the warm front) and then another cold air mass pushes into the warm air mass (the cold front). Because...more

How Hurricanes Form

A tropical thunderstorm can grow into a massive hurricane under certain conditions. Sometimes several thunderstorms start rotating around a central area of low pressure. This is called a tropical depression....more

Hurricane Movement

How do we know which way a hurricane will go? Forecasters track hurricane movements and predict where the storms will travel as well as when and where they will reach land. While each storm will make its...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA