World Of Wonders

An Everlasting Lightning Storm

The third hidden wonder of South America.

PUERTO CONCHA, Venezuela—Normally, there is just an hour between the sun going down and the sky lighting up over the Catatumbo Delta. It’s already dusk, and Dylan and I are sitting on a dock in a dusty fishing village, warily watching the clouds and waiting for a small boat to carry us up the shore of Lake Maracaibo and into the middle of what may be the world’s most perfect storm.

We’ve traveled nearly 15 hours from Bogotá, Colombia, to get to this out-of-the-way corner of western Venezuela, with the hope of seeing one of the strangest weather phenomena in the world. Here, where the Catatumbo River empties into South America’s largest lake, an “everlasting lightning storm” rages continuously for up to 10 hours a night, in exactly the same place, 260 nights a year. Nowhere else on Earth is so much lightning concentrated in one spot, with such regularity.

Erik Quiroga, a Caracas-based environmentalist who has accompanied us, looks down at his watch. “It’s going to start any minute,” he says, excited. All day, as we sped across the scorched, flat Venezuelan countryside in an air-conditioned SUV, he’d been predicting a 7:15 p.m. start for the storm. Promptly, as if on cue, the clouds flash a phosphorescent pink, and a bolt of lightning fractures the sky. Quiroga grins and flashes us his watch. It shows exactly a quarter past 7.

Known as the “Beacon of Maracaibo,” the Catatumbo lightning has guided sailors for centuries. It can sometimes be seen on the horizon from as far away as the Lesser Antilles, more than 200 miles distant. In his 1597 poem “The Dragontea,” which tells the story of Sir Francis Drake’s last expedition, Spanish poet Lope de Vega tells how the lightning—”flames, which the wings of night cover”—illuminated the silhouettes of the English privateer’s ships, tipping off the garrison at Maracaibo to his surprise attack. During the last major naval skirmish of the Venezuelan war of independence in 1823, the lightning was said to have helped steer the ships of Adm. José Prudencio Padilla to victory over the Spanish fleet. The storm is so central to the region’s identity that the state of Zulia put a large lightning bolt in the middle of its flag.

And then last year, suddenly and unexpectedly, the storm seemed to stop. According to reports in Venezuelan papers that were then picked up by the international press, the skies above Catatumbo went dark for six weeks between the end of January and the beginning of March 2010. “It was the longest disappearance of the lightning in 104 years,” said Quiroga, who blamed a drought caused by 2009’s especially strong El Niño. “This is a unique gift and we are at risk of losing it,” he told the Guardian.

In 2002, Quiroga launched a campaign to have the Catatumbo lightning pronounced the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Weather Phenomenon—a seemingly quixotic crusade, given that thus far the organization has only recognized physical places. Not only is the lightning a natural wonder, it is also, he argues, crucial to the global ecosystem. As it rips through the air, lightning tears apart oxygen molecules in its path, some of which rearrange to form ozone. (The word ozone, from the Greek for “to smell,” was coined because of the strange odor that lingers after lightning storms.) Discharging more than 1.2 million times each year, the Catatumbo storm is, Quiroga argues, the single greatest individual natural source of ozone in the world.

Quiroga is the Catatumbo lightning’s No. 1 cheerleader and fan. He helped spread the story of the lightning’s 2010 disappearance, and he has promoted an “International Day of the Ozone Layer” to call attention to the storm’s role as “the primary source of stratospheric ozone.” When I contacted him to let him know that we were going to be visiting Catatumbo, he offered to come along as our guide and to help make all the necessary arrangements with the local authorities.

The U.S. State Department and many European foreign ministries advise against traveling in the state of Zulia or any part of Venezuela within 50 miles of the Colombian border. The area is a haven for drug-traffickers, guerrillas, and armed gangs of various stripes. During our eight-hour drive south from the Maracaibo airport, we passed through no fewer than nine different police and military checkpoints. Our driver, an official in the regional environmental ministry, spent a disconcerting portion of the ride telling us how worried his mother was about him traveling in this part of the state.

Cloud-to-cloud lightning over Lake Maracaibo

Quiroga, who makes the trip at least once a year, didn’t seem so concerned. He stuck his hand out of the window and sized up the hot, dry air, which was approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and pronounced that the conditions were shaping up perfectly for a massive evening storm. He pointed at a nearly symmetrical mushroom-shaped cumulonimbus cloud floating alone at the horizon and dubbed it the “most perfect” he’d seen in months. “Tonight will be something special,” he said.

Why this particular spot should be the site of the world’s most perfect storm is still an open question. For a while, during the 1960s, it was thought that uranium in the bedrock of the Maracaibo basin might somehow be the trigger. According to Ángel Muñoz, who leads a team that studies the lightning at the University of Zulia’s Center for Scientific Modeling, the storm is caused by a more mundane, but still unique, convergence of local and regional factors.

The Catatumbo region is ringed by a V-shaped wall of mountains, which captures the warm trade winds blowing in off the Caribbean. When those winds pour into the Maracaibo basin, they collide with frigid air cascading down off the Andes. That collision of temperatures—the essential recipe for a thunderstorm—is fed by the enormous quantities of water that evaporate off the lake each day under the equatorial sun. The topography alone would make the area a hot spot for storms. But there’s one other factor that may give the lightning over Catatumbo an extra punch: methane.

Part of the reason gas in Caracas costs 6 cents a gallon is that the Maracaibo basin sits atop one of South America’s largest oil fields. Where there is oil, there is also methane, and sometimes you can see little bubbles of the gas percolating to the surface of the lake. In the swampy lagoons directly under the epicenter of the Catatumbo storm, the presence of methane seems to be especially pronounced.

The “everlasting lightning storm” rages for up to 10 hours a night, 260 nights a year

Muñoz believes methane may increase the conductivity of the air over Catatumbo, allowing lightning to recharge faster and fire more frequently. But he cautions that the mystery of Catatumbo hasn’t necessarily been solved, and he implored me to convey his reservations in anything I wrote. He was disappointed by the way the press trumped up the Catatumbo storm’s supposed “disappearance” last year. The lightning always dies down during the dry months of January and February, he said. There was no reason to be concerned—a sentiment he says he communicated to journalists. “We were interviewed, and we showed them we have no scientific evidence that the Catatumbo lightning is disappearing,” says Muñoz. In fact, not only is the Catatumbo storm not abating, its intensity has actually been increasing over the last decade. Though they don’t yet have the data to prove it, Muñoz and his team suspect that methane released by expanded oil drilling in the lake may be the cause.

Muñoz refers to Quiroga as “a very excited man” and a terrific promoter of the Catatumbo storm, but he challenges some of his scientific claims. Even more than the story of the storm’s disappearance, Muñoz is bothered by Quiroga’s insistence that the Catatumbo lightning is a major player in the regeneration of the ozone layer. While it’s true that the Catatumbo storm generates ozone, those molecules remain in the lower-altitude troposphere and decompose before they could ever migrate up to the ozone layer in the higher-level stratosphere. At lower altitudes, ozone can actually be poisonous to humans.

Our plan had been to get as close to the storm as we could by car, and then travel the rest of the way on the water. We would take boats 40 minutes down the Rio Concha and up the coast of Lake Maracaibo to a small palafito, or stilt village, called Congo Mirador, which lies almost directly beneath the storm’s epicenter. But when we pulled up to the dock in Puerto Concha at about 5:45 p.m., the boats that were supposed to be there waiting for us were nowhere to be found.

Nowhere else on Earth is so much lightning concentrated in one place with such regularity

Eventually, we located a pair of local fishermen, who both insisted that there was no way they could take us. It was already too late in the day, they said. By the time we got out to Congo Mirador, it would be too dark for them to turn around and make it back. “There’s just no way.”

“Can’t you bring a light?” I asked.

“Criminals,” one of the men responded gruffly.

I asked Quiroga what he meant. “Bandits,” he clarified, making a gun with his fingers and pointing it at his palm. They didn’t want to be out on the river after the sun went down. Negotiations continued, and frantic calls were made by a government official who had joined us from the municipal capital of Encontrados. The sun fell closer to the horizon. A new idea was broached: We’d pay one of the boatmen to stay with us overnight on the lake and to take us back in the morning.

The fisherman disappeared and returned 15 minutes later with a group of younger men, who looked like they might be teenagers. By now, the sky was almost black, and it was no longer a question of getting back before nightfall but of getting there at all.

Our government escort brokered a deal. He pointed at the younger men. “They will take you,” he said. “They say we will bring two boats instead of one, in case something happens. We will bring lights, and life vests. And we will bring guns.”

I walked over to the first fisherman we’d spoken to, a tall middle-aged man with a moustache and a commanding presence.

“You look like you’ve been doing this for a long time,” I said to him. “And I understand that you’re not willing to come with us. I need you to give me your honest opinion here,” I said. “Is this a bad idea?”

He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head.

Dylan and I stepped back and caucused. We weren’t the only ones who would be traveling downstream through the darkness. We were also responsible for Quiroga, a local fireman, and a local photographer who were accompanying us. Instead of strapping on guns and riding through the night to Congo Mirador, we realized that we had no choice but to observe the storm from a distance. And so we settled into our seats on the dock and watched as the clouds lit up around us. They refused to wait.

GoPro providedthe travelers with some camera equipment free of charge.

For more on the world’s wondrous, curious, and esoteric places, check out Atlas Obscura.

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