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The Mysterious Catatumbo Lightning
Here at Discovery Retreats we are inspired by the fact there is still so much about our amazing Earth to discover – so many mysteries that have yet to be unraveled. One example of a wonder we’ve just learned about is the Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon. It’s a spot in Venezuela that has been baffling people for centuries with some 40,000 strikes of lightning recorded a night.
And yes, people live there!
As incredible as it sounds this spot along the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracibo, is the host to thousands of cloud to ground lightning strikes so bright it can be seen from almost 250 miles away. Residents of the villages that dot the lake are used to the nighttime flashes and the light helps fishermen navigate the river at night.
For outsiders however, the intense brightness the lightning produces – estimated to be around 400,000 amps – can be disorienting. For an average of 160 or so nights per year the lightning comes fast and furious at 16 to 40 strikes per minute, creating a bright white sky.
Far from being a nuisance to the locals, they’ve come to embrace it as their companion and at times even their savior. Famously, the lightning prevented Sir Francis Drake from attacking the garrison on Lake Maracibo in 1595 when the lightning revealed his ships sneaking up the river.
In 1824, the brightly lit sky also helped Admiral José Prudencio Padilla guide his fleet to defeat the Spanish fleet, which ultimately led to the Spanish Crown accept the independence of Venezuela.
It’s little wonder the people of the Maracibo area are proud of the lightning strikes. Not only does it guide them on their nightly travels of the river – it helped them gain their freedom. The Catatumbo lightning has made its way into poems and even the flag and anthem for the state.
So what causes this unusual meteorological phenomenon? To be honest scientists are not precisely sure, but they believe the likely cause is the topography of the region.
The air over the region builds up to be extremely warm and moist during the day, fed by the sun and the swampy areas on the edge of the Lake. As the evening falls, it is thought that winds sweep in from the northeast – the one side of the Lake that isn’t surrounded by mountains and push the warm, wet air suddenly upwards as it hits the mountains.
This warm, moist air (or low pressure system) suddenly hits the colder, upper levels of the jet stream and the air becomes incredibly unstable. Big thunderstorm clouds form and with that comes the lightning. While there is likely accompanying thunder, it isn’t heard much as it occurs so high up in the clouds the noise it doesn’t impact one’s ears down below.
Other explanations have been floated for the lightning phenomenon. Some suggest the lake and swamp waters being high in oil and/or methane could be triggering electromagnetic reactions as the winds shift. It has also been attributed to the ground in the area being high in uranium – causing the same electromagnetic charges.
There has been no definitive proof that these factors cause the lightning, and to date scientists seem to favor the weather as the cause.
Further proof of this, is that as mysteriously as the lightning struck so often for centuries is the fact that in 2010 it suddenly stopped. The absence of the familiar strikes worried the residents and observers tried to understand why.
Those familiar with the region attributed the lapse as a casualty of El Niño and the changing climate in the area. El Niño caused a severe drought in the region causing water levels to drop and lesser tributaries to the Catatumbo River and Lake Maracibo to dry up. The less water, the less moisture in the air – the less moisture, the less unstable the air becomes as it rises and cools.
It was also thought farming and deforestation in the region contributed to the stop of the light show.
After two long months, the famous lightning strikes returned to the Catatumbo River. Locals and tourists who have begun to head to the region to see the night sky turn into day were relieved.
Scientists have pointed to the disruption of the Catatumbo Lightning strikes as an example of how sensitive the Earth can be to climate change. Any changes in the weather can throw a natural wonder like the Catatumbo Lightning into jeopardy – and since it is something of a mystery in it’s formation it is also a mystery as to how to protect it.
All the more reason scientists say for us to be protective of the world around us, lest the Earth’s mysteries disappear before we can properly understand them.
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