Ask Ellen: How can lightning strike without hitting the ground?

Ask Ellen

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — This is another great kid question and it has to do with lightning. Emery wants to know, “How does lightning strike between clouds without touching the ground?”

We usually think of a bolt of lightning needing to “hit” something, but that’s not always the case.

Lightning Strikes Charged Particles

The whole reason we have lightning is due to invisible charged particles in the sky. Thunderstorms are great at creating charged particles and packing a bunch into a single storm cloud. Over time, so many charged particles start popping up that the cloud can’t take it anymore! That’s when a lightning bolt is formed. A single bolt will strike through the sky looking for charged particles. ZAP! Once it hits these particles, they are neutralized, which makes the cloud happier.

This means lightning does not have to strike an object. Lightning will go where the charged particles are.

Here’s how it works. Positive and negatively charged particles are floating all around us. Inside a storm cloud, they tend to stack up like an oreo cookie, with like charges organizing themselves into layers.

As charges build up in the cloud it causes something neat to happen. Charges around the cloud and near the ground start organizing themselves too.

Once this happens, a lightning bolt is looking to zap! Eventually, so many charged particles form and organize that the cloud can’t take it anymore. It forms a bolt of lightning to strike through the air and neutralize those charged particles, and eliminate the charge from those areas.

Sometimes this means the bolt of lightning will strike from cloud to cloud or from the cloud out into the open air.

Four Kinds of Lightning

  • Cloud to Ground
  • Cloud to Cloud
  • Intra-Cloud Lightning
  • Cloud to Air

Cloud to Ground strikes are those big, solid bolts we see that stretch down from the sky and hit the ground.

Courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory


Cloud to Cloud strikes can look like electric spiderwebs crawling around the side of a cloud as a bolt equalized charged particles from one cloud to the other, or around the side of a single cloud.

Courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory

Intra-Cloud lightning is just cloud-to-cloud lightning where the bolts are hidden from view. They usually look like bright sheets of flashing light since the lightning bolt is happening inside the cloud instead of on the outside.

Courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory

Cloud to Air strikes happen when the bolt of lightning reaches out into clear air next to the cloud to zap some charged particles that are invisible to the human eye.

Courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory

Often times we see little branches of cloud to air strikes attached to a cloud to ground bolt! In fact, if you look at the cloud to ground picture in this article above you can see tiny branches of lightning attached to the main bolt of lightning that is hitting the ground.

Scientists are still learning why lightning forms, and using new technology to study it more. There is an excellent new program that maps lightning as it occurs within clouds. This new program called the “Global Imaging Mapper,” which uses satellites to track lightning inside of clouds. Hopefully this technology, along with, even more, will help us unlock even more lightning secrets in the years to come, including information on bursts of red, green and blue light that can happen near the tops of thunderstorms called elves, blue jets and sprites.

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