does lightning come from the ground

Lightning has always captivated humanity with its raw power and spectacular display. One of the lesser-known aspects of lightning is its origin—specifically, whether it comes from the ground or the sky. In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the science behind lightning formation and the different types of lightning, and finally, answer the intriguing question: Does lightning come from the ground?

Understanding Lightning Formation

Lightning is an electrostatic discharge that occurs during thunderstorms. It is the result of the buildup of electrical charges within a cloud. To understand this phenomenon, it’s crucial to grasp the concepts of charge separation within storm clouds.

Charge Separation in Clouds:

    • Positive and Negative Charges: Thunderclouds, or cumulonimbus clouds, contain positively and negatively charged particles. Separating these charges—with positive charges typically accumulating at the top of the cloud and negative charges at the bottom—is critical to lightning formation.
    • Induction and Ionization: The intense electric fields within the cloud induce opposite charges on the ground. This process leads to a significant buildup of electrical energy waiting to be discharged.

The Mechanics of a Lightning Strike

The Mechanics of a Lightning Strike

Understanding the initiation and propagation of a lightning strike is essential to discern whether lightning can originate from the ground.

Step Leaders and Strike Processes:

    • Initiation: The process begins with a downward-moving ‘step leader,’ a channel of negatively charged air that moves toward the ground in a series of rapid, jerky steps.
    • Connection with the Ground: As the step leader approaches the ground, objects on the ground that are positively charged (due to the ground’s induced positive charge) send up ‘streamers’—upward-moving positive charges.

What causes lightning to come out of the ground?

What causes lightning to come out of the ground?

Lightning that appears to come out of the ground, often referred to as ground-to-cloud or upward-moving lightning, is a fascinating phenomenon that occurs under specific conditions.

Charge Distribution and Induction

  1. Charge Separation in Storm Clouds:
    • During a thunderstorm, charges within the cloud separate; typically, positive charges accumulate at the top of the cloud, and negative charges collect at the bottom. This separation creates a strong electric field within and around the cloud.
  1. Induction on the Ground:
    • The strong electric field of the negatively charged bottom of the cloud induces a positive charge on the surface of the Earth directly below it. This induced positive charge is most substantial on elevated or pointed objects such as tall buildings, towers, or mountain peaks.

Formation of Upward Leaders

  1. Initiation of Upward Streamers:
    • Objects on the ground that have accumulated significant positive charge may emit a positive streamer—an upward-moving electrical discharge. These positive streamers attempt to reach the area of harmful charge accumulation, typically at the lower parts of the cloud.
  1. Meeting of Downward Step Leaders:
    • Simultaneously, a downward-propagating negative discharge, called a step leader, may be moving toward the ground from the cloud. A conductive path is formed if a positive streamer from the ground meets this downward-moving step leader, and a lightning discharge can occur.

Conditions Favoring Ground-to-Cloud Lightning

  1. Presence of Tall Structures:
    • Ground-to-cloud lightning is more common in areas with tall structures. These structures can more effectively gather and emit positive streamers due to their height and pointed features, which enhance the electric field at their tips.
  1. Geographical Features:
    • Geographic features like hills and mountains above the surrounding terrain can also be focal points for upward-moving lightning because they enhance the induced charge concentration at their peaks.

Impact of Ground-to-Cloud Lightning

Ground-to-cloud lightning is relatively less common than the more typical cloud-to-ground lightning, but it can be particularly intense and potentially dangerous. It often occurs at the onset of a thunderstorm and can strike with little to no warning because it does not require the same extensive development of downward-step leaders that cloud-to-ground strikes do.

Does Lightning Come from the Ground?

Does Lightning Come from the Ground?

The question at the heart of this discussion is where the connection between the step leader and the streamer comes into play.

Ground-to-Cloud Lightning:

    • Role of Ground Streamers: Sometimes, the streamer that connects with the step leader originates from the ground. This type of lightning, known as ‘ground-to-cloud’ or ‘upward-moving’ lightning, effectively means lightning can come from the ground.
    • Frequency and Conditions: Although less common than cloud-to-ground lightning, ground-to-cloud strikes are often observed with tall structures such as skyscrapers or towers. The structure sends up a streamer that meets the downward-moving leader.

Different Types of Lightning and Their Origins

To fully appreciate the dynamics of lightning, it’s essential to recognize the various types of lightning and their typical origins.

Types of Lightning:

    • Intra-cloud Lightning: Occurs within the same cloud and is the most common type.
    • Cloud-to-Cloud Lightning: Happens between different clouds.
    • Cloud-to-Ground Lightning: The well-known type where the discharge occurs between the cloud and the Earth.
    • Ground-to-Cloud Lightning: As previously mentioned, this involves the ground initiating a streamer that meets a step leader.

Scientific Observations and Evidence

Research and observations underpin our understanding of lightning and its behavior.

Scientific Studies and Experiments:

    • High-Speed Cameras and Sensors: Technologies like high-speed cameras and lightning detection sensors have provided insights into initiating and propagating lightning strikes.
    • The Role of Tall Structures: Studies have shown how tall structures can influence the incidence of ground-to-cloud lightning by providing a starting point for upward-moving streamers.


Lightning is a complex and multifaceted natural phenomenon. While it is commonly perceived as originating from the sky, conditions and scientific evidence show that lightning can come from the ground, especially in tall structures. This revelation not only enhances our understanding of lightning but also underscores the intricacies of atmospheric physics.

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