Lightning forms in the thunderous belly of a Cumulonimbus storm cloud. It is the sudden and enormous movement of electric charge within the cloud or to its surroundings. The huge cloud tends to develop negative charge towards its base and positive charge towards its summit. This appears to be caused by the collision between the large hail stones and smaller ice particles being blown around within the chaotic body of the cloud. When they collide, the larger hail seems to pick up some negative charge from the smaller particles. Being heavier, the hail is not blown upwards as easily by all the vertical currents of air in the cloud so the negative charge tends to build up around its base, the positive charge towards its summit.
As this distribution of charge increases, it becomes more and more unstable. Suddenly, a massive rush of electricity – the lightning bolt – redistributes the charge. Thunder is the explosive expansion of the air which is heated extremely fast as it conducts the electricity.
There are a number of different types of lightning, many of which are being demonstrated by the flamboyant thundercloud shown above. ‘Sheet lightning’ is when a bolt is hidden by the body of the cloud, so that the whole cloud appears to light up as the light passes through it. ‘Forked lightning’ tends to be classified in terms of where it travels: ‘Cloud-to-ground’ (just visible at the bottom left corner of the photograph); ‘Cloud-to-cloud’ (at the top right); ‘Cloud-to-air’ (top centre); and ‘in cloud’ (which is what is causing the sheet lightning at the centre of the image).
On the whole, clouds are the more subtle manifestations of the weather. Theirs is usually an understated beauty, which is why it is so often overlooked. No wonder, then, they want to show off every once in a while with such explosive, heart-stopping fireworks.