As one of nature’s most spectacular phenomenon, Catatumbo lightning occurs in a tiny area of Venezuela – there are up to 1.2 million lightning strikes every year! It gets its name from the Catatumbo River, which meets Lake Maracaibo at a spot where the “Relámpago del Catatumbo”, the everlasting storm, creates a striking landscape.
Originating from a concentrated mass of storm clouds more than 1km high, the lightning occurs for ten hours a day, 280 times per hour at its peak, although it will change its frequency from time to time. It has become a major visitor attraction in the region where the Catatumbo River flows into the lake.
The flashes appear in many striking colours including red, orange, blue and purple, because of the varying amounts of dust particles and water vapour in the atmosphere.
The stunning phenomenon has been mentioned by renowned explorers throughout history, such as the 18th-century Prussian explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who travelled to Venezuela in 1799. During his travels in the largely uninhabited country, he discovered new species, such as the oilbird, which he revealed to science.
In his subsequent book, Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, he wrote about the Catatumbo lightning, describing it as “powerful and sustained lightning flashes” that resembled “explosions like a phosphorescent gleam”. He labelled the phenomenon “El Farol de Maracaybo”, which translated as “The Lighthouse of Maracaibo”.
He described how navigators on the lake used it as a lighthouse to guide their boats. In those days, when little was known about nature’s phenomena, he said its distance from the shore was more than 40 leagues, suggesting it was a thunderstorm or the explosions from an electrical storm striking the mountains.
The great explorer and geographer Agustin Codazzi, who was of dual Italian and Venezuelan heritage, had also witnessed the Catatumbo lightning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He described it as looking like “continuous lightning” that occurred around the meridian of the mouth of the lake. He also noted its value as a natural lighthouse to guide boats’ navigators across the water.
The lightning became so famous and celebrated that it was incorporated into the flag of the Venezuelan state of Zulia, where Lake Maracaibo is located. It’s also mentioned in Zulia’s anthem.
How the lightning forms
Scientists have ascertained that the Catatumbo lightning develops as a result of storms caused by the strong wind blowing across Lake Maracaibo, which is surrounded by swampy plains.
Moisture and heat combine to create electrical charges when the air masses meet the Andes mountains’ high ridges, the Perijá Mountains (at a height of 3,750 metres) and the Cordillera (which encloses the plain on three sides).
As the air masses are destabilised by the mountains’ ridges, this results in continual thunderstorm activity and lightning, occurring mainly within the clouds. The lightning is created by the large, vertical clouds and produces massive quantities of ozone, although scientists don’t believe it affects the earth’s ozone layer.
A number of scientific studies were carried out throughout the 20th century to determine the cause and possible effects of the lightning. Melchor Centeno’s early study in 1911 suggested that it was caused by the specific wind conditions of the region – a theory which was proved correct by subsequent studies.
Backed by the University of the Andes, Andrew Zavrostky led three investigations of the area between 1966 and 1970, concluding the lightning’s epicentres were clustered around Claras Aguas Negras, the marshy area of Juan Manuel de Aguas National Park and the western side of Lake Maracaibo.
He wrote further research papers in 1991 which suggested that the lightning occurred because of the cold and warm air currents which met in the area.
Later research in the 20th century, carried out by a team from the Centre for Scientific Modelling at Zulia University and led by Ángel Muñoz, investigated how different atmospheric variables impacted on the Catatumbo lightning’s seasonal and year-to-year variations.
Research noted that the changes in the lightning’s frequency could be associated with the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the strong local winds.
The location and frequency of the Catatumbo lightning were measured using satellite data provided by two groups of researchers, led by Ricardo Bürgesser and Rachel Albrecht, who provided the detailed analysis about the timing and number of discharges of the bolts of lightning per square kilometre.
The Catatumbo lightning has become a major tourist attraction for the surrounding region, with visitors coming from all over the world to witness the spectacular phenomenon.
On one occasion, from January to March 2010, the lightning ceased altogether – the first time in recent history that this had happened.
It apparently occurred due to dry conditions and drought but raised fears locally that it might never return, as this would have meant disaster for the local people who rely on tourism for their income.
The local community of Congo Mirador, in Las Cienagas de Juan Manuel National Park, is located in the heart of the tourist trail. It isn’t a rich area and many of the local people live in stilt-built shacks.
These can be reached by boat from Puerto Concha, where most of the organised tourist trips begin. Tourist trips go to Congo Mirador, where the best views of the lightning are available, and this boosts the local economy enormously.
Although people travel from all over the world to witness the spectacular Catatumbo lightning, it also serves as a reminder of the astounding force of nature.
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