Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Everlasting Lightning Storm on the Catatumbo River

Over the mouth of the Catatumbo River in Zulia, Venezuela, where it pours into Lake Maracaibo, one of the most spectacular natural weather phenomena occurs nightly for roughly one-third of the year. This phenomenon is a barrage of lightning storms that crackle across the sky. It is known locally as Ralampago del Catatumbo. The lightning is accompanied by storm clouds and rain. There is a rumor that the lightning is silent. However, those who have gotten close to it can attest that it sounds like any other lightning storm. It is just visible from so far off, it is possible to see it and not hear it.

The Catatumbo Lightning typically begins at night or in the evening. The lightning tends to strike in the clouds. However, like all lightning, it is unpredictable. It can flash at average rates of up to five times per minute and can continue for up to ten hours. Even happening once a year, this lightning would be quite a show. The lightning is so bright that sailors can see it for miles, thus it is nicknamed "the Lighthouse of Maracaibo."

As far as history can tell us, the Catatumbo Lightning is not a new phenomenon. The first known mention of it was in 1597, though it could have been happening for much longer. The story goes that when Sir Francis Drake attempted to launch a surprise attack in the area, he was unsuccessful because the Catatumbo Lightning lit up the night sky, revealing his invading force to the locals.

There are several hypotheses to explain the Catatumbo Lightning. They include uranium in local bedrock; trapped wind, heat and moisture and the way the aforementioned things circulate in the area; methane and oil deposits are even culprits. Some speculate that it could be any combination of these things as well. In reality, we simply do not know. We do know that the lake is on the edge of the Atlantic, there are flat swamps in the area and the mountains do a good job of trapping the elements near the opening of the Catatumbo River. The trapping of moisture and heat seems to make sense, given that the Catatumbo Lightning slows down or stops during droughts. This shows us that, at the very least, moisture plays some role in creating these massive storms.

Seeing the Catatumbo Lightning is an adventure for outsiders. There is no resort at the edge of the lake from which you can view the lightning while sipping a cocktail. We are talking about the kind of place where you need mosquito netting, a poncho and probably a boat. You may find yourself in a village where toilets do not flush into pipes or where houses are on stilts. This is only for the truly adventurous. If that does not sound appealing, there are plenty of videos of the Ralampago del Catatumbo.


The Catatumbo Everlasting Lightning Storm, retrieved 7/27/11,

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