Latin America

The never-ending storm

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The Catatumbo Lightning is a continuous thunderstorm that has unfolded at the exact same location for 500 years. But why it happens, no one is able to explain.  

For up to 250 nights a year, people living by Lake Maracaibo are treated to mother nature’s own fireworks show. From late afternoon to the early morning hours, they can witness a storm of constant flashes and thunderbolts, seen from as far away as 40 kilometres (24 miles). “It lights up the entire area,” says Alan Highton, a local tour specialist. “You can walk around as if it was daytime.” And the next afternoon, it starts all over again.

The location of this phenomenon lies in north-western Venezuela, at the point where the Catatumbo River empties into Lake Maracaibo, a brackish bay that happens to be the largest in South America. It does not occur every night: the storm’s activity level depends on moisture, and the more rain, the more thunder and flashes. During the dry season, from December to April, many nights see no activity at all. Yet despite that, a study in 2010 concluded that the area has the highest lightning activity out of anywhere on earth.

The Catatumbo Lightning is not a new discovery. For centuries, fishermen have used it to navigate their boats. Apparently, in a 1598 poem titled La Dragontea, the Spanish poet Lope de Vega writes how it exposed a sneak attack on the city of Maracaibo in 1595. In the ambush, led by English explorer Sir Francis Drake, ships were said to have sailed discretely through the darkness, before the flashes illuminated their silhouettes, revealing the expedition. Another story, from 1823, tells how the lightning helped Colombians defeat a Spanish fleet during the Venezuelan war of independence.

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Today the storm remains important to the region – the state of Zulia even features a lightning bolt in its flag – but locals at Lake Maracaibo have long grown used to it. “They don’t care, they don’t even notice it,” says Highton. “They’ve seen it ever since they were born, and they don’t even realise that it is special.” As such, native eyebrows are raised when visitors flock to observe it, their eyes filled with awe and amazement. “To them the lightning is like cars on the streets to someone in New York City,” explains Highton. “Try asking someone in New York what they think about the cars, and see what they say.”

Nobody quite knows why the lightning occurs. What scientists are reasonably sure of is that it relates to the combination of hot, humid air rising from the lake – heated by warm winds arriving from the Caribbean – and the cold winds blowing in from the Andes mountains. Two mountain ridges surround the lake basin, capturing both winds. Another factor is the methane stored in the swampy lagoons beneath. “We don’t know exactly why it happens,” says Ángel Muñoz, a scientist representing the University of Zulia, in Maracaibo. “But it is possible that the methane aggravates it, because it will make it easier for the lightning to happen.”

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Early in 2010, the lightning stopped for several months. Not a single flash occurred. While silent periods were always common, never had they existed for as long as this. Reports circulated in international media of how the storm had mysteriously disappeared, and how locals were worried. However, in reality, according to both Highton and Muñoz, there was never a question that it would return, and most accepted that it was related to the record drought that hit South America at the time.

As predicted, it eventually returned, and is still going strong. Many tourists visit it each year, but not enough, says Highton, who believes the nature of the politics in Venezuela, combined with rising crime levels, have put people off visiting the lake. “The actual occurrence of this phenomenon is incredible and it is the one spot on earth with the most lightning,” he says. “That should interest a lot more people.” Tourism, he explains, would do a lot to help those living by the lake, who need resources. “There is a serious lack of drinking water,” he says. “They mostly use rainwater, so in the dry season, things get very difficult.”

But whatever happens to the visiting numbers, the Catatumbo Lightning is showing no signs of fading. Will it ever stop? “The question is: can climate change affect the Catatumbo Lightning?” says Muñoz. “But so far we don’t have the data to say anything. We have studied this since 1998, but if you want anything on climate change, you need 80 years of research to say anything certain. It’s possible, but we just don’t know.”

Photos: Alan Highton, Arianna AQ, Monica Clements Halper.

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