Why does lightning zigzag?

Multiple bolts of lightning strike ground and water along a coastline in Italy. The sky is dark blue.

Lightning strikes along the coast of Trieste, Italy and the Adriatic Sea. (Image credit: Jure Batagelj / 500px via Getty Images)

Lightning can light up the sky in a bright flash and take on a variety of shapes, but if you were to draw it, you’d almost certainly scratch out a zigzag. But what gives thunderbolts this branch-like shape? Why does lightning zigzag across the sky, instead of discharging in a straight line between a thundercloud and the ground? 

Many of the mechanisms of lightning remain a mystery, although researchers are starting to untangle the reason behind lightning’s crookedness. “We know all about most things on Earth — scientists can predict [lunar and solar] eclipses to within a fraction of a second,” John Lowke (opens in new tab), a physicist at the University of South Australia and lead author of a study investigating lightning’s “stepped pattern,” told Tausi Insider. “But there are still big mysteries about common old lightning.”

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