Photo taken in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, by Roberto Portolese, 2016
On Earth, the lightning frequency is approximately 40–50 times a second or nearly 1.4 billion flashes per year and the average duration is 0.2 seconds made up from a number of much shorter flashes (strokes) of around 30 microseconds.
Many factors affect the frequency, distribution, strength and physical properties of a “typical” lightning flash in a particular region of the world. These factors include ground elevation, latitude, prevailing wind currents, relative humidity, proximity to warm and cold bodies of water, etc. To a certain degree, the ratio between IC, CC and CG lightning may also vary by season in middle latitudes. Because human beings are terrestrial and most of their possessions are on the Earth, where lightning can damage or destroy them, CG lightning is the most studied and best understood of the three types, even though IC and CC are more common types of lightning. Lightning’s relative unpredictability limits a complete explanation of how or why it occurs, even after hundreds of years of scientific investigation.
A typical cloud to ground lightning flash culminates in the formation of an electrically conducting plasma channel through the air in excess of 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) tall, from within the cloud to the ground’s surface. The actual discharge is the final stage of a very complex process. At its peak, a typical thunderstorm produces three or more strikes to the Earth per minute. Lightning primarily occurs when warm air is mixed with colder air masses, resulting in atmospheric disturbances necessary for polarizing the atmosphere. However, it can also occur during dust storms, forest fires, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and even in the cold of winter, where the lightning is known as thundersnow. Hurricanes typically generate some lightning, mainly in the rainbands as much as 160 kilometres (99 mi) from the center.