The Everlasting Storm of Catatumbo, Venezuela

A photograph showing the intense lightning at Catatumbo in Venezuela. National Geographic MagazineCatatumbo’s Lightning Show

There is a place on Earth where lightning storms last forever.  We are at Catatumbo, in Venezuela.  And this year, Catatumbo was approved for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records, as the place in the World with the most lightning bolts per square kilometre each year at 250.  What causes such a powerful storm to develop in the same spot, up to 300 nights a year?

Throughout the year, the total reaches over 1.2 million discharges.  Moreover, the discharge occurs at a height of several miles and is not accompanied by acoustic effects.  Here, the lightning sparkles in complete silence.  This amazing phenomenon is visible even from a distance of four hundred miles and is also called the “Lighthouse of Maracaibo.”

The lightning played a significant role in Venezuelan history on two occasions, helping to thwart at least two nocturnal invasions of the country.  The first attempt was in 1595 when it illuminated ships led by Sir Francis Drake of England, revealing his surprise attack to Spanish soldiers in Maracaibo.  The other was during the Venezuelan War of Independence in 1823, when it betrayed a Spanish fleet trying to sneak ashore.

A map showing the hydrography of the Lake Maracaibo Basin.
Hydrography of Lake Maracaibo Basin Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

The “Lighthouse of Maracaibo”

Scientists think that the phenomenon at Catatumbo, named after a river that runs into a lake, is normal lightning that just happens to occur far more than anywhere else, due to local topography and wind patterns.  Lake Maracaibo basin is surrounded by mountains that trap warm trade winds coming off the Caribbean.

These winds crash into cool air spilling down from the Andes, forcing them up until they condense into thunderclouds creating an average 28 lightning strikes per minute across a wide area – an energy burst that could power all the light bulbs in Latin America.

The lightning occurs only over the mouth of the Catatumbo River, at the point where it empties into Lake Maracaibo.  The Catatumbo lightning usually develops between coordinates 8°30′N 71°0′W and 9°45′N 73°0′W.  The storms (and associated lightning) are likely to be the result of the winds blowing across the Maracaibo Lake and the surrounding swampy plains.

These air masses inevitably meet the high mountain ridges of the Andes, the Perijá Mountains (3,750 m), and Mérida’s Cordillera, enclosing the plain from three sides. The heat and moisture collected across the plains creates electrical charges and, as the air masses are destabilised at the mountain ridges, result in continual thunderstorm activity.

The phenomenon is characterised by almost continuous lightning, mostly within the clouds, which is produced in a large vertical development of clouds that form large electric arcs between 2 and 10 kilometres up or higher.

Lightning tends to start approximately one hour after dusk.

The frequent, powerful flashes of lightning over this relatively small area are considered to be the World’s largest single generator of tropospheric ozone.