The Power and Mystery of Positive Lightning
Positive lightning originates at the top of a thunderstorm, where cloud tops are positively charged, and can strike many miles outside the parent thunderstorm. This lightning strike occurred near Nags Head, N.C., on June 12, 2016. (Kevin Ambrose) – Via

Positive lightning, a less common but significantly more powerful variant of lightning, stands as one of the most potent displays of nature’s electrical force. While typical lightning strikes are negative in charge, positive lightning carries a positive charge from the upper regions of thunderclouds to the ground. It is a spectacular, yet potentially more dangerous, atmospheric phenomenon, notable not only for its rarity but also for its intensity and far-reaching impacts.

Conventional, or negative, lightning usually originates in the lower parts of thunderclouds and carries a negative charge. Positive lightning, in contrast, originates in the higher reaches of thunderclouds, particularly in the anvil-shaped top of cumulonimbus clouds. This type of lightning accounts for only about 5% of all lightning strikes, but its characteristics set it apart in several remarkable ways.

One of the most striking features is its sheer power. Positive strikes can carry up to ten times the current of a typical negative lightning strike, and the duration of a positive flash is typically much longer. This increased power makes positive lightning particularly hazardous, capable of causing more significant damage and fires.

Another notable aspect of positive lightning is its range. Unlike negative lightning, which typically strikes within or very near a thunderstorm, the positive type can strike areas located tens of kilometers from the storm, in regions experiencing clear or nearly clear skies. This phenomenon, often referred to as a “bolt from the blue,” can catch people off guard, striking with little to no warning in areas that may not seem at immediate risk from a distant storm.

Its extensive reach also raises significant safety concerns for aviation, as aircraft flying above or near thunderstorms can be vulnerable to these unexpected strikes. The high intensity and long duration of positive lightning can pose a serious threat to the safety and functionality of aircraft.

In terms of atmospheric impact, lightning plays a crucial role in the electrical balance of the atmosphere. Each strike helps to redistribute charges between the Earth and the atmosphere, contributing to the global electrical circuit that affects weather and climate patterns.

The studying this phenomena is also of great interest to scientists for understanding the broader mechanisms of thunderstorm and lightning activity. Investigating why and how positive lightning occurs helps in unraveling the complexities of storm dynamics and electrical discharge processes in the atmosphere.

Despite advances in meteorology and atmospheric science, this type of lightning remains a challenging subject for research, primarily due to its unpredictability and relative rarity. The deployment of advanced lightning detection systems and high-speed cameras has aided scientists in capturing and analyzing this elusive phenomenon, but much remains to be learned about its origins and characteristics.

In conclusion, positive lightning stands as a powerful testament to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of Earth’s weather systems. Its rarity, coupled with its formidable strength and reach, makes it an object of both awe and caution. As our understanding of this striking phenomenon grows, so too does our appreciation for the complex interplay of forces that govern our atmospheric environment.