Climate change threatens unique tropical lightning storm
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Can you imagine walking around at night as if it were daytime? On close to half the nights of the year, a continuous electric storm covers the skies in the southern tip of Lake Maracaibo, with such powerful – though nearly silent – flashes of lightning that for moments it almost seems like broad daylight. But the unique storm has already disappeared for one month this year and locals are worried it could vanish again...
Photo posted by Russel Maddicks on his blog.
Can you imagine walking around at night as if it were daytime? For nearly half of the nights of the year, a continuous electric storm covers the skies over the southern tip of Lake Maracaibo, with such powerful – though nearly silent – flashes of lightning that for moments it almost seems like broad daylight. But the unique storm has already disappeared for one month this year and locals are worried it could vanish again...
Legend has it that when the dreaded British pirate Francis Drake prepared a raid on the port of Maracaibo in 1595 the lightning gave his ships away to the Spanish authorities. While the story of a surprise buccaneer attack could be false, it is no myth that the Catatumbo lightning – also known as the Lighthouse of Maracaibo – guides boats sailing in the area. The thunderstorm can be seen from 40 kilometres away, and often the bolts of lightning can be seen as far as Colombia or Aruba.
Not everything is rosy though. Concern mounted in February when the storm disappeared for one month, the longest spell since 1906. El Niño was mostly responsible, as it caused intense droughts all over Venezuela. But man is also suspected of playing a part, as deforestation and intensive cattle farming are causing massive sedimentation in the swampy area where the unique meteorological phenomenon takes place.
Video posted on Youtube by YamasukiVen.
“Just imagine it: 28 bolts of lightning per minute, 8 hours per day and 140 to 160 days a year! There is simply nothing like it anywhere!”
Erik Quiroga is a Venezuelan environmentalist who has studied the Catatumbo lightning for years. He was also the main promoter of the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer (September 16), adopted by the UN in 1995.
It’s an extraordinary sight: imagine standing in the middle of the dark night and, then, suddenly being in broad daylight once again. It’s like having a lighthouse at a height of 7 kilometres. It is also a very noble phenomenon, because you can be absolutely certain that you are safe and that lightning will not strike you.
These are cloud-to-cloud bolts of lightning, which are those that occur in the clouds at a great height, without making contact with the ground. These flashes carry an electric current of between 100,000 and 300,000 amperes, while an average cloud-to-land bolt carries between 10,000 and 50,000 amps!
Photo by Rommel Rojas.
What happens is this: The mouths of the Catatumbo and Bravo rivers – both quite plentiful – form a large area of sweet-water wetlands that are very exposed to the sun, which causes a lot of evaporation. At the same time the trade winds coming from the north hit a small mountain range located on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, and part of them are sent back. The winds coming back surround and push that current of vapour even higher. This vapour reaches a height of 7 km, where it forms large ice particles that cause the electrical storm.
The lagoons also contain a certain amount of methane, which also evaporates and then becomes ionized at that height. It’s this methane that makes the storm last longer. But the storm can only happen at night because during the day the ultraviolet rays break down the methane. As soon as the sun falls and they disappear, the storm begins: it stops once before midnight for about 30 minutes and then begins again, only to end when dawn breaks.
Many people say the lightning is silent, but this is incorrect. Since the storm forms at a height of 7 km, the clouds above absorb the sound. You can hear it, but it’s barely audible.
Photo by Rommel Rojas.
The storm has an average of 28 bolts of lightning per minute, and during its peak moment it can reach one every second. Just imagine it: 28 flashes of lightning per minute, 8 hours per day and 140 to 160 days a year! There is simply nothing like it anywhere! The electric discharge is so strong that 15 minutes of storm, during its peak, would be enough to turn on all the light bulbs in South America for one second. That’s how much electric power the Catatumbo thunderstorm has.
This is why I am trying to promote the idea that the Ciénagas National Park, where a phenomenon as unique as the Catatumbo lightning takes place, should be listed as World Heritage by UNESCO.”
Photos courtesy of Alan Highton/Cocolight Catacumbo Tours
Post written with freelance journalist Andres Bermudez.