Catatumbo Lightning: Our Most Electrifying Wow Note
It is unlikely that many of us will get to witness Catatumbo lightning firsthand. That’s a shame because Catatumbo lightning is world-renowned. It flashes over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.
What’s So Special About Catatumbo Lightning?
NASA has named Lake Maracaibo lightning capital of the world. It is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most lightning bolts per square kilometre. Let’s give all this acclaim some context.
On Lake Maracaibo, lightning strikes an average of twenty-eight times per minute.
There are 250 lightning bolts per square kilometre.
Lightning around the world tends to peak around 7:00 p.m. and is at its lowest activity level around 3:00 a.m. Catatumbo lightning, on the other hand, routinely begins at precisely 7:15 p.m. and continues flashing an average of twenty-eight times per minute until just before dawn, nine or ten hours later.
With only two exceptions, Catatumbo lightning has lit up the sky between 160-250 days each and every year.
Lightning storms are less frequent over Lake Maracaibo in the dry months of January and February. They are more frequent, and more spectacular, in October when there can be a lightning strike every single second for ten hours. The math on that is more than 40,000 lightning strikes in a single night.
How Do We Know the Number of Lightning Strikes?
We are able to accurately determine lightning strikes anywhere in the world thanks to a lightning image sensor on a satellite and ground-based sensors at seventy universities and research sites.
You can watch a real-time map of lightning strikes around the globe here.
Why So Much Lightning in This One Place?
The prevailing theory is that the frequency of lightning storms on Lake Maracaibo is due to the lake being surrounded by mountains that trap warm trade winds from the Caribbean. These warm winds collide with cool air coming down from the Andes. The resulting condensation, fed by updrafts created by water evaporating from the lake, results in thunderclouds.
Electricity is really just organized lightning.George Carlin
Most lightning occurs within a cloud. A smaller percentage of strikes are cloud to ground or cloud to water.
What are the Benefits to Catatumbo Lightning?
Catatumbo lightning is also referred to as the Maracaibo Beacon because the lightning is so frequent that it serves as a natural lighthouse for the area’s 20,000 fishermen. Visible from 400 kms (250 miles away), the Maracaibo Beacon has helped to thwart two nighttime attacks.
The first attempt was in 1595 when Sir Francis Drake of England tried to attack and was turned away by Spanish soldiers in Maracaibo. The other was in 1823, during the Venezuelan War of Independence, when a Spanish fleet was trying to sneak ashore under cover of darkness.
One Venezuelan scientist argues that Catatumbo lightning is also helping to replenish Earth’s ozone layer, but that claim is doubtful. Ozone is indeed produced by lightning, but the molecules decompose before ever drifting high enough to reach the stratospheric ozone layer where they could do some good.
The biggest single benefit to Catatumbo lightning should be to eco-tourism, something that Venezuela has been eager to promote. Unfortunately, efforts have been thwarted by Maracaibo’s proximity to Colombia and to the drug dealers and armed guerilla groups in the area. Here’s a fun 3:43 minute video about Atlas Obscura’s attempts to view the storm close up and personal.
What Don’t We Know About Catatumbo Lightning?
Natives called Catatumbo lightning ‘rib a-ba’ or the “river of fire” and believed that it was a sign from the gods. Whether it is or not is just the first of many unknowns.
There is not only a lot of lightning but the lightning is also exceptionally powerful. One theory is that the methane gas underneath the Maracaibo basin seeps into the atmosphere, increasing the lightning’s conductivity.
The lightning is also extremely colourful. Again, some attribute this to methane gas but it is more likely that the moisture in the air acts as a prism and scatters light.
Finally, we don’t know how long the Catatumbo lightning will continue. It stopped for three weeks in 1906 when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami. It stopped again January through March 2010, apparently because of drought. The fear is that climate change will ultimately put an end to Catatumbo lightning.
Have you seen the Catatumbo lightning? If not, would you go or would you, like Dylan in the video, watch from a safe distance?