It’s the form of visible electric discharge between rain clouds or between a rain cloud and the earth. The discharge is seen in the form of a brilliant arc, sometimes several kilometers long, stretching between the discharge points. The discharge also sets up a sound wave that is heard as thunder.
How rain clouds become charged is not fully understood, but most rain clouds are negatively charged at the base and positively charged at the top. The various hypotheses that explain how the polarization occurs may be divided into two categories: those that require ice and those that do not. Most meteorologists believe, however, that ice is a necessary factor, because lightning is not usually observed until ice has formed in the upper layers of thunderclouds. Experiments have shown that when dilute solutions of water are frozen the ice gains a negative charge but the water retains a positive charge. If, after freezing has started, rising air tears small droplets of water away from the frozen particles, the droplets are concentrated in the upper part of the cloud and the larger ice particles fall toward the base. On the other hand, experiments have also shown that large, swiftly falling drops of water become negatively charged whereas small, slowly falling drops become positively charged. The polarization of a thundercloud may thus be due to the rates at which large and small raindrops fall. However formed, the negative charge at the base of the cloud induces a positive charge on the earth beneath it, which acts as the second plate of a huge capacitor. When the electrical potential between two clouds or between a cloud and the earth reaches a sufficiently high value—about 10,000 volts (V) per centimeter (cm) or about 25,000 V/in. (a volt is a measure of electrical potential; for comparison, the potential supplied by an ordinary electrical outlet in the United States is 110 V)—the air becomes ionized along a narrow path and a lightning flash results. Many meteorologists believe that this is how a negative charge is carried to the ground and the total negative charge of the surface of the earth is maintained..