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Breakdown: Positive lightning strikes vs negative: What’s the difference?

Published: Apr. 26, 2022 at 1:41 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) -Positive lightning is the most dangerous of the two types. It is more dangerous and can be deadly if struck because it comes from the top of a thunderstorm. The cloud tops at the top are positively charged, and can strike as far as 25 miles away from the main thunderstorm where the ground is negatively charged.

Negative lightning, is still dangerous but it originates from the lower-level clouds in a thunderstorm, which are negatively charged. Negative bolts often strike directly under the thunderstorm where the ground is positively charged. Negative lightning takes a much shorter path to the ground, as oppose to positive lightning and often strikes in or near the thunderstorm’s rain shaft, which is more predictable.

Have you ever heard of a “bolt from the blue”? This actually refers to positive lightning that travels a ways from a storm through blue sky, and can strike the ground several miles away from the main thunderstorm. It is usually unexpected and can be extremely deadly and dangerous.

Positive lightning travels a much longer distance through the air than negative lightning. Positive lightning is approximately fives times more powerful. According to research, it can have more than double the volts and 10 times the amps of negative lightning. Positive bolts are hotter and can last 10 times longer than negative lightning.

To avoid the dangers of positive lightning, don’t start or restart outdoor activities when the rain from a thunderstorm ends. It’s best to wait 30 to 45 minutes after the storm passes, and when you can no longer hear thunder.

Positive Lightning Facts

  • Less than 5 to 10 percent of lightning strikes are positive.
  • Most lightning strike victims are stuck by positive lightning versus negative lightning.
  • Positive lightning carries a much greater charge and a longer flash duration than negative lightning
  • Fatality percentages are higher with positive lightning strikes compared to negative lightning strikes.
  • A significant percentage of forest fires are started by positive lightning strikes.
  • Positive lightning is usually composed of one stroke, while negative lightning often has two or more strokes.
  • Winter storms produce a higher percentage of positive lightning strikes, compared with summer storms.

But if there is no building or vehicle nearby, here are some outdoor lightning safety tips from the National Weather Service:

  1. Avoid open fields and the tops of hills.
  2. Stay away from tall, isolated trees or other tall objects. If in a forest, move to an area with lower stands of trees.
  3. Groups of people should spread out to avoid the current from a lightning strike traveling among group members.
  4. If camping, choose valleys or low areas for tents. Remember, tents do not offer lightning protection.
  5. Stay away from water and wet items, including ropes, fences and poles.

It’s best to wait 30 to 45 minutes after the storm passes, and when you can no longer hear thunder.

The lightning safety motto from the National Weather Service is “When thunder roars, go indoors.”

**Remember if you can hear thunder even if it is the faintest sound of thunder and even if it is from a very distant storm, it’s still possible to be struck by positive lightning.

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