The 'Catatumbo Lightning': Venezuela's eternal storm

Fri Nov 7, 2014 12:48pm EST
 
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By Diego Ore

LAKE MARACAIBO Venezuela (Reuters) - When Venezuelan environmentalist Erik Quiroga was five years old, his mum showed him a spot on the horizon where magnificent lights appeared from a huge storm most nights, about 40 miles from his hometown of Valera at the foot of the Andes.

When his family moved to Lake Maracaibo four years later, the epicenter of that eternal storm, he met close-up what would become a lifelong passion: the Catatumbo Lightning.

"It amazed me. At nine, I fell in love with the lightning," Quiroga said in an interview.

As the years passed, Quiroga became an environmentalist and has spent two decades studying the cinematic natural phenomenon.

Thanks to his lobbying, this year the Catatumbo Lightning was approved for inclusion in the 2015 edition of Guinness World Records, dethroning the Congolese town of Kifuka as the place with the world's most lightning bolts per square kilometer each year at 250.

So what causes such a powerful storm to develop in the same spot, up to 300 nights a year?

Scientists think the Catatumbo, named for a river that runs into the lake, is normal lightning that just happens to occur far more than anywhere else, due to local topography and wind patterns.

Lake Maracaibo basin is surrounded by mountains that trap warm trade winds coming off the Caribbean. These winds crash into cool air spilling down from the Andes, forcing them up until they condense into thunderclouds creating an average 28 lightning strikes per minute across a wide area - an energy burst that could power all the lightbulbs in Latin America.   Continued...

 
Lightning strikes over Lake Maracaibo in the village of Ologa, where the Catatumbo River feeds into the lake, in the western state of Zulia October 23, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva