As a thundercloud moves over the Earth's surface, an equal but opposite charge is induced in the Earth below, and the induced ground charge follows the movement of the cloud.

An initial bipolar discharge, or path of ionized air, starts from a negatively charged mixed water and ice region in the thundercloud. The discharge ionized channels are called leaders. The negative charged leaders, called a "stepped leader", proceed generally downward in a number of quick jumps, each up to 50 meters long. Along the way, the stepped leader may branch into a number of paths as it continues to descend. The progression of stepped leaders takes a comparatively long time (hundreds of milliseconds) to approach the ground. This initial phase involves a relatively small electric current (tens or hundreds of amperes), and the leader is almost invisible compared to the subsequent lightning channel.

When a step leader approaches the ground, the presence of opposite charges on the ground enhances the electric field. The electric field is highest on trees and tall buildings. If the electric field is strong enough, a conductive discharge (called a positive streamer) can develop from these points. This was first theorized by Heinz Kasemir. As the field increases, the positive streamer may evolve into a hotter, higher current leader which eventually connects to the descending stepped leader from the cloud. It is also possible for many streamers to develop from many different objects simultaneously, with only one connecting with the leader and forming the main discharge path. Photographs have been taken on which non-connected streamers are clearly visible. When the two leaders meet, the electric current greatly increases. The region of high current propagates back up the positive stepped leader into the cloud with a "return stroke" that is the most luminous part of the lightning discharge.

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