Natural Wonders: Catatumbo Lightning

Natural History
Forked lightning strikes a lake at night
Catatumbo Lightning. Photo: Shutterstock

A lake in Venezuela gets 250 lightning strikes per square kilometre every night

Would you dare to live in a place where there are more than 28 lightning strikes per minute? Yes, you read that right. We have seen many oddities on our planet, but none as electric as this.

The Catatumbo Lightning, also known as the Beacon of Maracaibo or the “everlasting storm”, is seasonal lightning around Lake Maracaibo (13,200 square kilometres) in northern Venezuela. The region endures more than 160 storm nights a year.

During this nocturnal phenomenon, there are over 250 strikes per square kilometre and they occur up to 100km away from the lake.

Despite a mostly starry night, the Catatumbo Lightning flashes out of isolated cumulonimbus clouds. Photo: Shutterstock

Lake Maracaibo is actually one of the oldest on Earth, dating back 36 million years. Historically, it was an important route for ships to reach the ports of Cabimas and Maracaibo. The lightning itself acted as a kind of beacon for navigators. Records of the lightning go back as far as 1826 when explorers and geographers such as Alexander von Humboldt of Prussia and Agustin Codazzi of Italy described their own encounters with the electric display.

The indigenous people of the area, the Wari, believed this to be the work of legions of fireflies paying tribute to their creator God. But science has another explanation.

Lightning needs heat, humidity, and lots of wind. The northern Andes surround the lake and allow unique wind, cooling, and heating patterns to form. Water from the lake evaporates, and winds push the warm air toward the cold air in the mountains, creating towering cumulonimbus clouds.

The collision of ice crystals and water droplets from the humidity causes the static and the eventual shocking display. The energy emitted is enough to power over 100 million light bulbs. Its heat is said to be three times hotter than our sun’s surface and is visible over 400km away. 

Lightning strikes 28 times per minute above Lake Maracaibo. Photo: Shutterstock

The lightning’s consistency is the primary focus of scientists. The first researchers in the 1960s believed that uranium or methane from nearby oil seepages created the effect. More recently, Ángel G. Muñoz, a physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sent weather balloons onto the lake and discovered that the moisture-bearing air also made the balloons rise very fast. This happens almost every day, although wind patterns also change year by year. Once, in 2015, the lightning ceased from January to March because of extremely dry conditions that season. 

This lightning does not pose any real threat to lakeshore residents. In fact, they have grown quite used to the sky lighting up every night and are amused by the terror and awe from tourists. 


About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer (and occasional photographer) based in sunny Trinidad and Tobago.

Since graduating from the University of Leicester with a BA in English and History, she has pursued a full-time writing career, exploring multiple niches before settling on travel and exploration. While studying for an additional diploma in travel journalism with the British College of Journalism, she began writing for ExWeb.

Currently, she works at a travel magazine in Trinidad as an editorial assistant and is also ExWeb's Weird Wonder Woman, reporting on the world's natural oddities as well as general stories from the world of exploration.

Although she isn't a climber (yet!), she hikes in the bush, has been known to make friends with iguanas and quote the Lord of the Rings trilogy from start to finish.

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
4 months ago

its awesome to get such information and its also help me to learn and write about lighting capital