Catatumbo: the lightning capital

When referring to the “lightning capital”, you will have guessed that we will talk about a place where lightning is the protagonist, and that’s right! Catatumbo is considered in this way by an incredible meteorological phenomenon that occurs there.

This phenomenon takes place in Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela. Popularly, the natural light show is known as “Catatumbo lightning”, but the reality is that lightning reaches more than the Catatumbo river delta and reaches Lake Maracaibo, which is the largest in South America.

Know everything about Catatumbo

In this Venezuelan corner, it is difficult to observe clear and starry nights. Dense clouds take over the sky, but not to leave an empty darkness. What happens next is simply wonderful and inexplicable.

The night sky in Catatumbo lights up in perfect shades of blues, violets and pinks. The flashing light breaks through the clouds and the beautiful and fatal show begins…

The place with the highest concentration of lightning

In this area, lightning flashes over and over again in the sky between the months of April and November. It is already an everyday thing for its inhabitants, but it represents an amazing phenomenon for visitors, who cannot believe that something like this is happening.

On average, there are about 297 thunderstorms each year, of which approximately 1.6 million lightning bolts are released. This destination is in the Guinness Book of Records as the place with “the highest concentration of lightning in the world”.

This “place of privilege” was believed to be occupied by the Congo River Basin in Africa. In Kifuka, a town in the Congo, there are an average of 158 lightning strikes per square kilometer per year, a figure that was far surpassed by Catatumbo, where 250 lightning strikes or more per square kilometer are generated each year.

Confirming that Catatumbo ranks first in the world took 16 years of data collection. The study to determine the frequency of storms per year was carried out by NASA, the universities of Maryland and Alabama —both in the United States— and that of São Paulo, Brazil.

Why does this phenomenon occur?

This is probably not the answer you expect, but the truth is that It is not known for sure why this phenomenon occurs. Despite this, the most accurate theory holds that the winds coming from the Caribbean blow hot air over the brackish waters of Lake Maracaibo and that, later, they collide with the cold air from the Andes, and that is why storms are generated.

NASA satellite images recorded 2 storm epicenters that contribute to lightning. One takes place over the Catatumbo River, which usually begins at sunset. The other, even larger, on the southwestern shore of Lake Maracaibo, which begins its light show later in the evening.

Climate change and the ozone layer: how do lightning strikes?

Richard Blakeslee, a NASA scientist, reported to BBC Mundo that the scientific study that was carried out could provide valuable information on climate change on Earth. The expert hypothesized that thunderstorms and lightning could be a sensitive indicator of temperature change.

Blakeslee said understanding lightning’s relationship to harsh weather and atmospheric chemistry is key. This led him to deduce that the creation of environmental public policies is necessary.

On the other hand, Erik Quiroga, a Venezuelan environmentalist, believes that Catatumbo lightning has a positive effect on the ozone layer, and that they could help repair the damage on it. His hypothesis is that, as there is a cycle of storms from cloud to cloud, it is possible that part of the generated ozone reaches the lower part of the ozone layer.

Catatumbo Tourism

If you are wondering if this fascinating natural phenomenon can be observed live and direct, the answer is a great Yes! Thousands of scientists, documentalists and tourists are attracted by lightning over Lake Maracaibo.

The phenomenon can be observed hundreds of kilometers away. The best viewpoint is south of Lake Maracaibo, in Puerto Chamita, where the palafitos are located —houses on the water— to accommodate tourists.

How to get to Catatumbo

The main flights leave from Latin America and land in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. From there you have to go to Merida, where you have to take a 16-hour bus. The other option is to take a plane to El Vigía, and from there a one-hour bus to Mérida.

Getting there is not easy, but the high probability of witnessing such a light show made by lightning makes it worth it. Also, the environment is fascinating, since nature reigns and its fauna is present.

One of the tours consists of a boat ride on the Caño Concha River, through the tropical forests and swamps of the Ciénagas de Juan Manuel National Park. Along the way, you might come across capuchin monkeys, beautiful toucans, and green iguanas. What follows is to reach a stilt house to wait for the magical moment of seeing the sky illuminated by lightning.

a unique phenomenon

In Catatumbo, what happens is fantastic: the largest amount of lightning in the world is concentrated there. It is not well known why it happens, but with all that mysticism that it contains, observing that is incredible.

In some corner of the world a great lightning show is being generated… and that place is Catatumbo. Without a doubt, something like this is worth experiencing!

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