Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Positive and Negative Lightning
Name: Dave
Status: other
Age:  50s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 2000-2001

What is the difference between a positive lightening strike and a negative lightening strike? They talk about them at website ningLoop/

Dear Dave-

Lightning is a fascinating part of weather, and I'll try to explain positive and negative lightning strokes. But first, you should visit this link, and read a detailed, but non-technical explanation of how lightning forms. It is very interesting. Here is the link:

The differences between positive and negative strokes is not discussed in detail in the link. Most cloud-to-ground strikes are negative, and a much less common number are positive. The only difference between the two kinds is the reversal of polarities in the cloud base. Normally the negative charge collects in the cloud base, with a corresponding net positive charge in the ground under the cloud. Lightning strikes originating from this configuration are negative strikes.

But if the cloud base becomes positively charged relative to the top of the cloud, the ground below then assumes a net negative charge, and any lightning that develops will be a positive strike.

The lightning detection sensors used by many data observation and collection organizations are able to distinguish between positive and negative strikes, and report them as such. Research is ongoing, to determine if there is a relationship between positive strokes and certain types of severe weather.

Wendell Bechtold, Meteorologist
Forecaster, National Weather Service
Weather Forecast Office, St. Louis, MO


About 90% of all lightning strokes are negative strokes, meaning that they were initiated by a large concentration of negative charge in the cloud-base; this tends to induce an area of positive charge on the ground. The positive lightning stroke is exactly the opposite, with a positive charge concentration in the base of the cloud inducing a negatively charged area on the ground. Positive strokes are most common in severe thunderstorms just prior to tornado formation and are being studied heavily now as possible predictors of severe weather and tornado formation. If we could identify the correlation and timing of positive stroke formation, we may have one more predictive tool to give people early warning of a tornado.

David Cook
Argonne National Laboratory

Volume II of Feynmann's LECTURES ON PHYSICS -- I think Ch. 9 and 10 give an understandable treatment of lightning.

Vince Calder

Click here to return to the Weather Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory