Endless lightning

There is a storm above the mouth of the Catatumbo River in Venezuela that produces endless lightning – and has been doing so consistently, year-round, for hundreds of years.

Catatumbo lightning
Fernando Flores from Caracas, Venezuela [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
When most people think about permanent storms they usually picture the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. But the planet Earth also has a few of their own: rare and unusual weather patterns created by impossibly precise geographical and meteorological conditions. Venezuela has one of the best.

The Catatumbo River eases into a swampy plain before emptying into Lake Maracaibo. (Lake Maracaibo is very interesting in its own right, by the way: it’s one of the oldest lakes in the world, but now it is basically just an inlet of the Caribbean.) The lake is on one side of the plains, and high mountain ranges are on the other three sides: the Andes, the Sierra de Perijá, and the Cordillera de Mérida. It’s warm and there’s a breeze coming in from the lake. All this means perfect conditions for a storm.

And there is a storm above the river mouth, for most of the year. Now, it’s not there 100% of the time – the Wikipedia article suggests that it’s present between 140 and 160 nights per annum. And when it’s present, the storm is full of lightning.

Plentiful lightning. Shockingly (hah) frequent lightning. More than a hundred times a day, in fact. Scientists measure lightning frequency in terms of flash rate: the number of lightning strikes per square kilometre per year. The area around Lake Maracaibo has a flash rate of 250 fl km-2yr-1. That’s the highest in the world.

It has been this way for a long time. The phenomenon was mentioned in Lope de Vega’s 1598 epic poem about the downfall of Francis Drake, and the lightning is consistent enough to serve as a kind of natural lighthouse (the “Lighthouse of Maracaibo”).

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