TNB Night Owl – Relámpago del Catatumbo

Catatumbo lightning over Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. Image captured by the News Blender.

Lope de Vega, renowned Spanish poet, playwright, and novelist, crafted an epic poem circa 1596-1597 called La Dragontea, which describes Sir Francis Drake’s last privateering expedition. The poem tells of Drake’s failed attempts to raid Spanish ports to loot gold. One of those raids was against the settlement of Maracaibo. In late 1595, Drake planned to sail his fleet into the Gulf of Venezuela under cover of darkness and surprise the Spaniards. The defenders were alerted to the attack by the light of Relámpago del Catatumbo, and were ready to repel the attack. By January of 1596, Drake had succumbed to dysentery (and karma, apparently).

‘Relámpago del Catatumbo’ is Spanish for ‘Catatumbo Lightning’, an electrical storm that is the most intense and consistent in the world. It goes by other names, too. Since it occurs between 200 and 300 nights each year, the locals call it ‘The Everlasting Storm’ because it never seems to end. For centuries, sailors called it the ‘Maracaibo Beacon’ or ‘Maracaibo Lighthouse’ due to the fact that the lightning, which is consistently in the same location, can be seen from far out at sea and is, therefore, useful in navigation.

Lake Maracaibo, located in western Venezuela, is geographically unique. At least twenty million years ago it was a true lake, separated from the sea, but the Tablazo Strait (where Drake’s target, the city of Maracaibo still stands) has widened over millenia to let salt water in. The lake, being at sea level, has become briney and brackish, and more accurately described as a tidal bay, estuary, or lagoon. It could also be called an ocean inlet. Surrounded on three sides by the Andes mountain range, the valley in which the lake resides is wide open to the north where it faces the Caribbean Sea. This region is near the equator, where the Sun makes the most of its year-round position high in the sky to heat the air and waters. This unique geography, fueled by the Sun, causes warm, humid air to rush into the valley from the sea during the day. Once there, the warm air is stopped by the surrounding mountains and has no where to go but up, where it meets cold, dry air descending from the high peaks. When warm, humid air meets cold, dry air we have the perfect recipe for major thunderstorms.

Physically, the lake is 99 miles (159 km) long and 67 miles (108 km) wide. The surrounding land tends to be marshy and swampy, even more so since oil companies pumped so much crude out of the ground that it’s literally sinking. Even so, Lake Maracaibo still sits on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, exceeding Saudi Arabia’s fields.

However, it’s the nearly nightly light show that makes this place special, taking place between 200 and 300 nights each year. The lightning is consistently concentrated at the mouth of the Catatumbo River, which empties into Lake Maracaibo on the west side, near the south end of the lake. Why the mouth of the Catatumbo, no one knows. On a typical night, there are an estimated 250 lightning strikes per square kilometer on average. That’s the greatest lightning density of anywhere on Earth. The overnight storms may last ten hours, sometimes accompanied by tornadoes or hurricane strength winds. Relámpago del Catatumbo holds the Guinness World Record for most lightning strikes per square kilometer per year.

“The most lightning-struck place on Earth – Graeme Anderson” (3:41)

“Weird Places: The Endless Lightning at Lake Maracaibo” (4:38)

“Shooting the Everlasting Storm | That’s Amazing” (4:50)

“Catatumbo Lightning – The Neverending Storm (A Short Film by Jonas Piontek)” (19:29)

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About Richard Doud 357 Articles
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