How Many Volts is Lightning: The Truth About Lightning

You know that lightning is a powerful discharge of electricity, and you probably understand that this happens when there is an imbalance between positive and negative charges in the atmosphere. Is it enough to kill you, or just give you a nasty shock? 

Even many people who know that lightning strikes almost constantly somewhere in the world are surprised to learn that there are several different types. Each type has its own characteristics, including different voltages, currents, and frequencies. How many volts is lightning? Let’s find out.

Lightning Strike
Image Credit:

What is lightning?

Lightning is a flash of electricity that occurs when positive and negative charges build up in different parts of the atmosphere. The positive charges are in the form of atoms called ions, and the negative charges are electrons. The charges build up in the air because the air is a poor conductor of electricity. When the positive and negative charges meet, they flow through the air, creating that sudden flash we call lightning. 

Lightning is not just one event. It is a series of events that happen very quickly. It begins when positively charged particles in one part of the atmosphere are attracted to negatively charged particles in another part of the atmosphere. The negatively charged particles are in the form of an extremely large cloud of electrons. These two areas of the atmosphere are separated by what is called a charge differential. 

The charge differential creates an electrical current that flows from one area of the atmosphere to the other. This current flows from the negatively charged area to the positively charged area. This flow of electricity is what we see as lightning.

How many volts is lightning?

As we’ve seen, lightning is caused by a build-up of positive and negative charges. A typical lightning flash has an initial voltage of 30,000,000 volts followed by a return stroke with a voltage of 50,000,000 or more volts. So how much voltage does lightning have? It’s actually staggering! 

In fact, it’s a little difficult to fully comprehend just how powerful lightning is. But if you want to try, imagine that the charge from a bolt of lightning is enough to light a 100-watt lightbulb for 3 years straight.

Or if you prefer, it’s enough to boil the water in a full bathtub in less than 5 seconds! Okay, so we’ve seen that lightning is incredibly powerful. But why does it form in the atmosphere, and how does it differ from other electrical discharges? Let’s find out.

Cloud-to-ground lightning

This is the type of lighting most people will have seen or heard. It occurs when there is a build-up of positive charges within a cloud and negative charges on the ground. The positive charges in the cloud are usually the result of water droplets within the cloud being split into separate ions by an electrical field. 

The cloud-to-ground lightning bolt is actually the flow of electrons from the ground to the cloud. When the two areas are relatively close together, this bolt of electrons can “jump” between the two. This is known as a “step leader” or a “streamer”. The rest of the lightning bolt occurs in a very short amount of time, often less than one second.

Cloud-to-cloud lightning

This type of lightning is similar to the cloud-to-ground version, except that there are positive and negative charges in different parts of the same cloud. The positive charges in one part of the cloud are attracted to the negative charges in another part of the same cloud. Cloud-to-cloud lightning is more common in the tropics than in more temperate latitudes. 

This is due to the fact that the warm, moist tropical air is highly suitable for producing powerful electrical discharges. Sometimes a bolt of lightning can jump from one part of a cloud to another. This is known as “intra-cloud” lightning and is much less common than other types of lightning.

Beltane or intra-cloud Lightning

This type of lighting is also known as “Beltane” lightning, as it is most common during the festival of May Day which is often celebrated on May 1st. As the name suggests, this type of lightning occurs within a single cloud. Beltane lightning is usually triggered when a rising warm updraft of air in one part of the cloud meets an outflow of cool air in another part of the cloud. This creates the charge differential that is necessary for intra-cloud lightning to occur.

Flash to ground and return stroke lightning

This is the type of lighting that most people associate with severe thunderstorms. It is caused by a single, long-lasting charge differential that stretches from one part of the cloud to the ground. The charge differential will often occur within a thunderstorm cloud, but it may also extend outside of the cloud to the ground. 

The initial voltage for a flash-to-ground lightning bolt is typically less than 30,000,000 volts. However, the voltage increases rapidly as the current flows through the air. This is due to the resistance of the air that is being passed through. As the current flows through the air, it heats it up, which creates the resistance that we know as voltage.

Ultra-short flash bursts (USFB)

This type of lighting is different from the other types in that it usually occurs within a thunderstorm cloud. It is followed by a return stroke similar to the ones found in flash-to-ground lightning. The main difference between the two types is that the current flows for much less time during USFBs. 

The current flow for only a few microseconds, whereas the current in flash-to-ground lightning flows for several milliseconds. These short current pulses create high temperatures inside the thunderstorm cloud that can be used to identify the type of cloud.


This article discusses the many different types of lightning and what each has in common. It also reveals how powerful lightning can be through statistics on the amount of voltage it possesses. Cloud-to-ground lightning is the most frequently seen type of lightning, as it occurs between a cloud and the ground. Cloud-to-cloud lightning occurs within a single cloud, while Beltane or intra-cloud lightning occurs when two parts of the same cloud are at different temperatures. 

Flash-to-ground lightning is the most common type of lightning within a thunderstorm, often occurring between the cloud and the ground. USFBs are bursts of lightning that occur within a thunderstorm cloud. Now that you’ve read this article, you know that lightning is a powerful discharge of electricity. You’ve seen that there are several different types of lightning, and you’ve learned just how much voltage each type has.

Additional Contents:

  1. How Fast is Lightning: The Facts Behind the Speed of Lightening
  2. What is Lightning Arrester: Things You Should Know
  3. Does Carbon Dioxide Cause Acid Rain
  4. How Does Acid Rain Affect Animals
  5. Does Nuclear Power Contribute to Acid Rain