How Many Different Kinds of Lightning There Are?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask, and what you consider a “kind” of lightning. The typical classifications are as follows:
Cloud-to-cloud (intercloud, which is lightning moving between separate clouds, and intracloud, which is lightning moving within the same cloud).
Cloud-to-ground (Less common but more dangerous than cloud to cloud. If anything on the earth is struck by lightning, it was cloud-to-ground.) Cloud-to-ground lightning is more complex than a simple bolt shooting straight from a cloud, however, and includes charges moving up and down from both the cloud and the ground.
Cloud-to-sky (Also known as sprites, cloud-to-sky lightning occurs in the upper atmosphere. They lack the hot temperatures of other types of lightning, and usually have a reddish-orange hue.)
Lightning is also sometimes further specified as:
Ribbon lightning (Successive strokes of lightning are displaced by wind, resulting in a broadened appearance, almost like a double-exposed photo).
Bead lightning (The decay of the luminosity of the bolt of lightning, resulting in a beaded appearance. This happens very quickly and is difficult to capture.)
St. Elmo’s Fire This is not actually lightning, but often closely associated with it and seen during electrical storms. St. Elmo’s Fire (not to be confused with ball lightning as it often is) is the result of a gap in electrical charge. It’s made of plasma (ionized air that emits a glow) and, while lightning is the movement of electricity from a charged point, St. Elmo’s Fire is a coronal discharge that sparks up in the place where there is a drastic difference in charge between the air and an object like the mast of a ship or the steeple of a church. St. Elmo’s Fire is the same thing that happens in a fluorescent tube- essentially a continuous spark, glowing blue because of the particular combination of air molecules. It may also take on a purple hue.
St. Elmo’s Fire is very difficult to find accurate images or videos of. Many videos exist that claim to be St. Elmo’s Fire but are actually just static discharge (a frequent occurrence around airplanes in the midst of storms). An easy way to tell the difference is that St. Elmo’s Fire does not look like lightning- instead it emits a steady glow.
Ball lightning- The most mysterious type of “lightning”, there is some dispute among scientists as to whether ball lightning actually exists. Arc faults along power lines (which appear as large, impossibly bright balls of light) and photographic anomalies are both to blame for the confusion.