Lightning Facts

A short compendium of information about lightning.

 A typical lightning flash lasts about a quarter of a second and consists of 3 or 4 individual discharges called strokes. Each stroke lasts a few ten thousandths of a second, although the visual appearance is longer. The "flicker" sometimes observed in lightning is due to seeing the actual strokes making up the flash.

A lightning stroke begins with a faint predischarge, called the leader, which goes from the cloud to the ground. The leader establishes a path for the highly luminous return stroke (what you really see) which propagates from the ground up to the cloud. The first stroke of a flash is usually preceded by a "stepped leader", so called because it appears to progress in discrete steps (about 100 segments, each 50 m long) from cloud to ground. The subsequent strokes are preceded by a "dart leader" which smoothly follows the path of the previous return stroke (and is about 10 times faster).

Thunder is formed from the shock wave formed by the rapid heating of the air along the path of the return stroke, which reaches some 30,000 degrees K. The sound of thunder varies depending on how far you are from the various parts of the stroke. The sound from a part of the stroke farther away will get to you later and be fainter.

Summary of lightning parameters

The following table gives data for normal cloud to ground lightning discharges bringing negative charge to earth. Representative values are given, as well as a range of typical values. Data is taken from Uman, Lightning, which in turn takes the data from a variety of sources.

Representative Range
Stepped Leader
Length of Step 50 m 3 - 200 m
Time interval between steps 50 uSec 30 - 125 uSec
Averave Velocity of propagation of stepped leader 150 km/sec 100 - 2600 km/sec
Charge deposited on stepped-leader channel 5 C 3 - 20 C
Dart Leader
Velocity of Propagation 2000 km/sec 1000 - 21,000 km/sec
Charge deposited on dart-leader channel 1 C 0.2 - 6 C
Return Stroke
Velocity of propagation 80,000 km/sec 20,000 - 160,000 km/sec
Current rate of increase 10 kA/uSec <1 - >80 kA/uSec
Time to peak current 2 uSec <1 - 30 uSec
Peak Current 10-20 kA -110 kA
Time to half of peak current 40 uSec 10-250 uSec
Charge transferred (excluding continuing current) 2.5 C 0.2 - 20 C
Channel Length 5 km 2 - 14 km
Energy dissipated 100 kJ/meter
Lightning Flash
Number of strokes per flash 3-4 1 - 26
Time interval between strokes 40 msec 3 - 100 mSec
Time duration of flash 0.2 sec 0.01 0 2 sec
Charge transferred including continuing current 25 C 3 - 90 C


Where to get more information

The best book on lightning I've run across:

Martin A. Uman
c. 1984, Dover Publications, Inc. New York
ISBN 0-486-64575-4


Copyright 1997, Jim Lux / lfacts.htm / Back to Lightning / Back to home page / Mail to Jim