Nearly 160 nights a year, thousands of lightning bolts light up the sky above the Venezuelan Lake Maracaibo. Due to its unrivaled duration and extraordinary intensity, the Catatumbo storm is the most persistent in the world. It develops to the southwest of the lake, at the mouth of the Rio Catatumbo, a tributary of this immense inland sea whose topography and climate favor the development of electrical storms. From May to October, lightning transcends the night for almost ten hours straight. The frequency of lightning is breathtaking, sometimes with more than two lightning strikes per second, but no deafening thunder. The “relampago del Catatumbo” is almost silent as it occurs high in the sky: more than 4,000 m above the ground! In a striking ballet, the orange to red lightning illuminates the night so regularly and rhythmically that locals have nicknamed it the “Catatumbo Lighthouse”. A precious help for the surrounding fishermen who do not seem to be more amazed by this incomparable meteorological phenomenon.
The Catatumbo storm, a cocktail of explosive air masses
If hypotheses vary as to the origin of this phenomenon, there seems to be a consensus on one of them. In the evening, the warm and humid winds from the Caribbean Sea rush into the basin formed by the mountainous area which surrounds the lake, and meet the cold and dry air which descends from the Andes Cordillera. The confrontation between these two air masses is explosive, causing atmospheric disturbances. Huge cumulonimbus clouds form from which the first lightning strikes. What happens next is less certain, but the presence of methane in the lake, evaporating in the evening, would further encourage electrical activity.
A phenomenon soon to be a UNESCO world heritage site?
With more than 1.6 million electric shocks of extraordinary power (between 100,000 and 300,000 amps compared to 10,000 to 50,000 for a classic storm) produced every year, the eternal storm entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2014, thanks to Erick Quiroga. This Venezuelan ecologist is now fighting for the phenomenon to be included in the list of world heritage of humanity established by UNESCO, as a natural good, in the same way as Canaima National Parkin the southeast of the country.
The Catatumbo storm doesn’t bother anyone!
In this isolated region of the country, the inhabitants are few in number. Only a few villages on stilts animate the south of the lake. Lightning and its almost permanent light are part of the landscape and punctuate the lives of men, fishermen who track fish by the light of the “lighthouse” but hurry to return when the storm increases. Around it, a huge marshy area of 2700 m2 shelters an ecosystem still preserved : alligators, pelicans, howler monkeys, reptiles and birds that lightning does not seem to bother.
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