Darkness doesn’t last long in the skies of Lake Maracaibo, located at the mouth of the Catatumbo river in Venezuela. An hour after dusk, the clouds brew and the lightshow begins—lightning bolt after lightning bolt strikes, and intense cloud-to-cloud discharge that forms arc of lightning more than five kilometres high. “Relámpago del Catatumbo” (Catatumbo lightning) it is a unique natural phenomenon: it’s an almost permanent storm that lights up the skies over the marshlands of Lake Maracaibo for 10 hours a night, over 160 nights a year. Rapid-fire bolts rip open the sky 16 to 40 times a minute on any given night, reaching an intensity of 400,000 amps, and they can be seen from 400 km away—but the phenomenon occurs so high up that the thunder is inaudible to spectators on the ground. This storm has been raging for centuries. The indigenous people of Northwestern Venezuela call the phenomenon “rib a-ba” or “river of fire in the sky”, and ancient mariners used the lightning for navigation. In 1595, Francis Drake was forced to abandon a sneak attack on the city of Maracaibo after the lightning exposed his ship to the Spanish garrison. The lightning storms are caused by the collision of winds sweeping down from the Andes Mountains, and the ionised gases (specifically methane) that rise up to feed the storm from the marshlands below, created by the decomposition of organic matter. Some researchers believe the storm generates ozone and helps replenish the ozone later, but others say that the ozone produced wouldn’t rise that high. Nonetheless, it’s one of the longest displays of continuous lightning in the world—similar phenomena are found in Colombia, Indonesia and Uganda, but not with the insane intensity and frequency of the Catatumbo lightning.
(Image Credit: Alan Highton/NatGeo)