January 4, 2023
Lightning was, in all likelihood, the very first source of fire on planet Earth—and it remains, along with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, one of nature’s most amazing displays of power.
But, almost no place on the planet is the weather phenomenon more dazzling on a consistent basis that in Venezuela, near the confluence of the Catatumbo River and Lake Maracaibo. In that area, often called Earth’s most electric spot, lightning makes an appearance almost every day of the year, reports Mental Floss.
The rayo del Catatumbo (Catatumbo lightning), also known as the Faro de Maracaibo (Maracaibo beacon), puts forth an average of 232.52 flashes of lightning per square kilometer each year. According to NASA, the energy released during just ten minutes of Catatumbo lightning could illuminate the whole of South America.
We can’t keep all that lighting in a bottle, so here are ten essential facts about the astounding phenomenon:
In 2016, Catatumbo took the crown as the world’s top lighting hotspot. Using data collected between 1997 and 2015 by NASA’s lightning image sensor on its Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite, researchers identified the Catatumbo zone of Lake Maracaibo as the lightning capital of the world. According to experts at Zulia State University in Venezuela, Catatumbo lighting is most active during the rainy season in September and October; and least active in January and February, the dry season. On average, electrical storms occur 260 nights appear per year, predominantly between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. The second- and third-most electric locales in the world are Kabare and Kampene, two towns in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Catatumbo lighting is born from a continuous dance of cold and heat. In the past, people attributed Catatumbo lightning to the action of uranium in the bedrock, methane released by the surrounding swamps, or the massive oil deposits of Lake Maracaibo. But the most likely explanation lies in the mechanics of wind and the unique topographic conditions of the region—especially at the lake’s southern confluence with the Catatumbo River. The Andes Mountains surround the lake on three sides, leaving an opening only in the north. There, warm waters from the Caribbean Sea flow into the lake, where the hot sun draws up moisture into the air and traps it among the slopes. In the evening, cold winds blow down from the mountain peaks and collide with the humid air, forming cumulonimbus clouds. Warm water droplets and ice crystals smack into each other and emit violent electrical charges in the form of constant lightning.
Catatumbo lightning generates a huge amount of ozone. Venezuelan environmentalist Erik Quiroga suggested to the BBC that ozone generated by Catatumbo lightning could replenish the ozone layer. But Ángel Muñoz, now an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Science and Society, told a Venezuelan newspaper in 2014 that “the time it would take for the ozone produced by the Catatumbo lightning to ascend to the ozone layer is at least six months, so we do not see a viable mechanism for it to contribute to the regeneration of the planetary ozone layer.”
A severe drought interrupted the Catatumbo lightning for months. Wind and heat are crucial for the lightning’s display, but so is abundant moisture. In 2010 a severe drought caused by El Niño stopped the constant lightning storms, worrying the area’s residents. Months later, perhaps as a result of the dry El Niño weather pattern shifting to the wetter, stormier La Niña pattern, the lightning strikes returned. Muñoz and his colleagues suggest that these seasonal drivers can help scientists predict lightning activity over the long term.
A prominent explorer had theories about the lightning’s origin. From 1799 to 1800, the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt and naturalist Aimé Bonpland made a year-long visit to Venezuela. Although he didn’t observe the lightning in person, Humboldt heard about its regular displays and wondered about its cause. “What is the luminous phenomenon known by the name of the Maracaybo lantern that is seen every night on the seaside as well as in the interior of the country [?],” he wrote in Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (translated from Spanish). “The distance of more than 40 leagues at which the light is distinguished has led to the belief that it could be the effect of a storm or electrical explosions that take place daily in a mountain gorge and it is even assured that the sound of thunder is heard when one approaches the lantern.” He was correct on that point, but also reported that other observers had attributed the lightning to “an air volcano” created by deposits of asphalt.
Agustín Codazzi was the first observer to make a spot-on diagnosis. Codazzi, an Italian adventurer, geographer, and cartographer, moved to Venezuela following its independence from the Spanish Empire. He was tasked with creating accurate maps of the region, including Lake Maracaibo. He observed the lightning firsthand and noted in 1841 that there was more rain where the Catatumbo River ended. “It seems that […] the electrical matter is concentrated in those places, in which it is observed every night a luminous phenomenon that is like lightning that from time to time ignites the air,” he wrote. In the 20th century, when it became clear that storms caused the phenomenon, Venezuelans stopped calling it the Maracaibo Beacon and renamed it Catatumbo lightning.
The Catatumbo lightning helped Venezuela win independence. On July 24, 1823, the electrical storm acted like a lighthouse for the naval forces of Admiral José Prudencio Padilla, who managed to defeat to a squadron of Spanish ships in the battle of Lake Maracaibo. It was a decisive and final victory for the independence of Venezuela. A well-known myth suggests that a raid by English privateer Sir Francis Drake was thwarted by the light of the Catatumbo storms in 1595, an event celebrated by contemporary Spanish writer Lope de Vega in his epic poem “La Dragontea.” In fact, Drake never attacked Maracaibo, and the light that Lope de Vega describes came from burning boats during the battle of San Juan in Puerto Rico.
The Catatumbo lightning is pictured on a regional flag. Indigenous people living around Lake Maracaibo take great pride in the lightning show. The Bari people believe that it is caused by hundreds of supernatural fireflies, while the Wayuu people consider it the work of the souls of the deceased. In the 20th century, when photos and filming of the storms began to circulate in the media, Venezuelans (and especially those in Zulia State) adopted the phenomenon as their symbol. Several traditional songs of the Zulia State and the regional anthem mention it; and, since 1991, it has been pictured on the Zulia State flag.
Research contact: @mentalfloss