Lightning strikes the ground, the air, or inside clouds. There are roughly 5 to 10 times as many cloud flashes as there are cloud-to-ground flashes.
There are two types of ground flashes: natural (those that occur because of normal electrification in the environment), and artificially initiated or triggered. Artificially initiated lightning includes strikes to very tall structures, airplanes, rockets and towers on mountains. Triggered lightning goes from ground to cloud, while “natural” lightning is cloud to ground.
In cloud-to-ground lightning (CG), a channel of negative charge, called a stepped leader, will zigzag downward in roughly 50-yard segments in a forked pattern. This stepped leader is invisible to the human eye, and shoots to the ground in less time than it takes to blink. As it nears the ground, the negatively charged stepped leader is attracted to a channel of positive charge reaching up, a streamer, normally through something tall, such as a tree, house, or telephone pole. When the oppositely-charged leader and streamer connect, a powerful electrical current begins flowing. A return stroke of bright luminosity travels about 60,000 miles per second back towards the cloud. A flash consists of one or perhaps as many as 20 return strokes. We see lightning flicker when the process rapidly repeats itself several times along the same path. The actual diameter of a lightning channel is one-to two inches.