Declination: The Lightning of Lake Maracaibo

For about 160 nights a year a perpetual lightning storm known as Relampago del Catatumbo ignites the heavens above where Lake Maracaibo meets the Catatumbo River in Venezuela, creating a display of nature unlike any other on earth — and December marks the end of its peak cycle, making now prime viewing time. The storms will then pick up again in April, when the weather starts getting more humid.

Thanks to 280 bolts per hour, 10 hours at a time, the Venezuelan skies grow so bright, so reliably, that ships use them as a navigation aid. The phenomenon has been written about as far back as the 1500s, and the storms have thwarted at least two military campaigns by enemies who mistakenly believed they could sneak in under the cover of darkness. Indeed, the Catatumbo lightning actually aided the cause of Venezuelan independence by revealing the location of Spanish ships in 1823.

The lightning at Catatumbo is unusually powerful. Bolts carrying 400,000 amps of current are routinely recorded. By contrast, your typical lightning bolt might carry 30,000 amps.

The lightning storms are sometimes intense enough to be visible 250 miles away, a feature that gave rise to the nicknames “Lighthouse of Maracaibo” and “Maracaibo Beacon.” Not only are the storms intense and bright, the bolts come rapidly, sometimes striking 16 to 40 times a minute.

The state of Zulia, where Lake Maracaibo is located, celebrates the phenomenon. The lightning is depicted on the state’s flag, coat of arms, and is mentioned in its anthem.

The jury’s still out on the exact origin of this unusual phenomenon. Studies have cited closed wind circulation, uranium-containing rock, swamp methane, and oil deposits as possible accomplices. Many feared climate change had extinguished the Catatumbo lightning for good when skies went dark in January 2010, coinciding with a drought in the area. To much relief, the bolts began raining down again three months later.

While many have lobbied, UNESCO has declined to designate the Catatumbo lightning a World Heritage Site, noting that storms cannot have a physical “site.”

In affiliation with GrindTV. Photos by Elizabeth Delgado

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