If ever you’ve ever found yourself wondering what it would be like to experience a violent thunderstorm that seemingly never ends, you need look no further than Venezuela – the home of yet another of planet earth’s more mysterious natural wonders, to find out.
Where the Catatumbo River mouth meets the vast Lake Maracaibo in Zulia state, situated at the northern tip of the country, can be found the ‘Relámpago del Catatumbo,’ or Catatumbo Lightning, a unique atmospheric phenomenon that has captivated tourists and locals for countless generations.
Quite simply, the Catatumbo Lightning, whilst not technically an eternal storm in the literal sense, is not far from it. The cacophony of noise and explosive power is truly startling in its intensity. For between 200 to 300 days a year, the storm produces an average of 28 strikes of lightning per minute for up to 10 hours at a time. At peak activity, the storm can unleash up to 3,600 bolts of lightning per hour, or roughly one strike per second during particularly explosive displays – this equates to upwards of 40,000 lightning strikes in a single night.
This lightning is not only produced in excessively large amounts, but is also astonishingly powerful, with each bolt potentially charged up to 400,00 amps – far, far beyond that of your average lightning strike. This staggeringly potent lightning is also incredibly bright and constant; so much so, in fact, that it is visible from up to 250-miles away, as a haunting flickering glow on the horizon.
Nowhere else on earth does lightning strike in such concentrations and with such relentless ferocity. Interestingly, however, this most wild and untamed of thunderstorms is as predictable as it is brutal, occurring in the exact same place, starting practically on cue at roughly the same time, every day, around an hour or so after dusk.
The Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon has been well-known for centuries. Local Venezuelans from the region historically called it rib a-ba – the ‘river of fire,’ and revered it as a sign from the gods. Later, during the colonial period of the Caribbean, the highly visible light show was used as a means of navigation by sailors, who called it ‘The Lighthouse of Catatumbo,’ and the ‘Maracaibo Beacon.’
Scientists believe that Catatumbo, named for a river that runs into the lake, is in fact normal lightning that, due to the area’s local topography and wind patterns, just happens to occur far more in this particular area than anywhere else. The Lake Maracaibo basin is surrounded on virtually all sides by mountains that capture warm trade winds coming off the Caribbean, which then crash into the cool air which spills down from the Andes, forcing the conflicting winds up until they condense into thunderclouds.