November 7, 2014 / 3:44 PM / in 3 years

The 'Catatumbo Lightning': Venezuela's eternal storm

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.

CHANGING HISTORY

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

History books show the lightning has played a significant role in Venezuelan history, helping thwart at least two nocturnal invasions of the country.

The first attempt was in 1595 when it illuminated ships led by Sir Francis Drake of England, revealing his surprise attack to Spanish soldiers in Maracaibo. The other was during the Venezuelan War of Independence in 1823, when it betrayed a Spanish fleet trying to sneak ashore.

Quiroga, now 64, said the Catatumbo helps regenerate the ozone layer, based on a study led by Harvard University.

Slideshow (9 Images)

Despite its fame, the nearby villages of Ologa and Congo Mirador barely receive any tourists.

In 1981, then-surfer Alan Highton came to Venezuela from his native Barbados, in love with a local girl. Years later, working as a tour guide in the Andes, he too saw the Catatumbo Lightning, but said: “I didn’t know it was anything special.”

It was not until 1995, when he reached Lake Maracaibo on a visit to see its colorful houses on stilts when he was captivated by the phenomenon. The early explorers described the region as a “Little Venice,” thereby giving rise to the name Venezuela.

Highton bought a stilt house on the lake and started to bring visitors to see the lightning. “We’re working on trying to get the world to know more about Venezuela,” said the 51-year-old entomologist on the porch of his home.

Despite its natural beauty, Venezuela received just 1.2 million tourists last year, while neighboring Colombia welcomed nearly 4 million.

“There’s still much to do,” said Highton, crossing his arms shortly after dark, as the latest storm began to gather.

Writing by Diego Ore, editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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