Thundercloud charge separation, or the process by which the bottom portion of a cloud gathers charge and the top portion of the cloud gathers the opposite charge, is still not thoroughly understood. Whatever the mechanism, though, a charge separation definitely exists and can lead to electrostatic discharge via cloud-to-cloud lightning and cloud-to-ground lightning. We wish to examine the latter form, in which upward leaders from Earth connect with downward leaders from the cloud to form a plasma channel and produce lightning. Much of the literature indicates that the lower part of a thundercloud becomes negatively charged while the upper part becomes positively charged via convective charging, although the opposite polarity can certainly exist along with various, complex intra-cloud currents. It is estimated that >90% of cloud-to-ground lightning is “negative lightning,” or the flow of charges from the bottom of the cloud, while the remaining <10% of lightning strikes is “positive lightning,” or the flow of charges from the top of the cloud. We wish to understand the electric potential surrounding charged thunderclouds as well as the resulting charge density on the surface of Earth below them. In this paper we construct a simple and adaptable model that captures the very basic features of the cloud/ground system and that exhibits conditions favorable for both forms of lightning. In this way, we provide a practical application of electrostatic dipole physics as well as the method of images that can serve as a starting point for further modeling and analysis by students.

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