Lightning is a massive electrostatic discharge between electrically charged regions within clouds, or between a cloud and the Earth's surface. The charged regions within the atmosphere temporarily equalize themselves through a lightning flash, commonly referred to as a strike if it hits an object on the ground. There are three primary types; from a cloud to itself (intra-cloud or IC); from one cloud to another cloud (CC) and finally between a cloud and the ground (CG). Although lightning is always accompanied by the sound of thunder, distant lightning may be seen but be too far away for the thunder to be heard.
Lightning occurs approximately 40–50 times a second worldwide, resulting in nearly 1.4 billion flashes per year.
Many factors affect the frequency, distribution, strength, and physical properties of a "typical" lightning flash to 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. 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 km (3 mi) tall, from within the cloud to the ground's surface. The actual discharge is the final stage of a very complex process. A typical thunderstorm has three or more strikes to the Earth per minute at its peak.