A discharge of atmospheric electricity accompanied by a vivid flash of light. During thunderstorms, static electricity builds up within the clouds. A positive charge builds in the upper part of the cloud, while a large negative charge builds in the lower portion. When the difference between the positive and negative charges becomes great, the electrical charge jumps from one area to another, creating a lightning bolt. Most lightning bolts strike from one cloud to another, but they also can strike the ground. These bolts occur when positive charges build up on the ground. A negative charge called the 'faintly luminous streamer' or 'leader' flows from the cloud toward the ground. Then a positively charged leader, called the return stroke, leaves the ground and runs into the cloud. What is seen as a lightning bolt is actually a series of downward-striking leaders and upward-striking return strokes, all taking place in less than a second.
Lightning bolts can heat the air to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. This burst of heat makes the air around the bolt expand explosively, producing the sound we hear as thunder. Since light travels a million times faster than sound, we see lightning bolts before we hear their thunderclaps. By counting the seconds between a flash of lightning and the thunderclap and dividing by five, we can determine the approximate number of miles to the lightning stroke. Source: NASA (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Glossary)