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How Lightning Works

Lightning results from the attraction between positive and negative charges. As the particles within a cloud grow and interact, some become charged -- possibly through collisions. Updrafts and gravity separate the particles, leaving the upper part of the cloud positively charged, and the lower part negatively charged.

The attraction between positive and negative charges produces enormous electrical potential -- millions of volts, in fact -- both within the cloud and between the cloud and ground. Eventually the attraction between opposite charges breaks down the air's resistance to electrical flow, sparking a lightning flash.

But not all lightning is the same. For more on the three most common types of lightning, click on a colored section of the illustration above. 


 

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Pictures: Courtesy of Dave Sentman/Geophysical Institute/University of Alaska Fairbanks | DCI |
Copyright © 1999 Discovery Communications Inc.