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The Catatumbo Everlasting Lightning Storm

Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela - Oct. 2009

Chasing down the mysterious semi-permanent lightning storm that occurs where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo.

  • The Catatumbo lightning storm (Relámpago del Catatumbo) is an atmospheric phenomenon in western Venezuela. It occurs strictly in an area located over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo. The frequent, powerful flashes of lightning over this relatively small area are considered by some to be the world's largest single generator of tropospheric ozone.
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  • The storms are likely the result of the heavy winds blowing away from the Andes Mountains, which then collide with ionized gases - specifically the methane created by the decomposition of organic matter in the marshes. Being lighter than the incoming air, the gas rises up into the cloud layer, creating an electrical charge and a subsequent discharge which is seen as lightning.
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  • The phenomenon is easy to see from hundreds of miles away and is also known as the Lighthouse of Maracaibo, as the boats that sail the area can navigate at night without any problems at the time of sailing. The storms have an annual occurrence of 140 to 160 nights, each lasting up to 10 hours per night and each producing up to 280 strikes per hour.
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  • To the best of my knowledge, I am the first storm chaser to pursue and document this phenomenon.
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    These "Palafitos" are houses on short stilts that are used by fishermen on Lake Maracaibo. We would stay at 2 different Palafitos during the trip.

    My bed on the Palafito. It was fine until the storms hit, then the rain and wind blasting through made things a bit crazy!

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    The Catatumbo lightning. It is mostly hidden inside the clouds, but there are bolts that come down to the ground (or water).

    Many resources say that the Catatumbo lightning is silent, but this is not true. The light carries much farther than the sound, which often makes the lightning seem silent, but rest assured, when it came close (and overhead) it was plenty loud!

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    At the height of one of the storms, our boat skipper had to dive into the lake to bail out the boat. The wind was howling and the rain was pouring down with lightning crashing all around.

    The next day we relocated to the small fishing village of el Congo which lies in the Catatumbo river delta, where it joins Lake Maracaibo. There are no roads or cars, only boats and water.

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    The water here in el Congo village is the road network, source of income for the fishermen, and a playground for the children, but it is also the garbage dump and communal sewer.

    Venezuelan cities are full of graffiti and even the small fishing village is no exception.

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    Looking across town from the local church steeple.

    Pigs root through a shallow area in a fishing village.

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    Another Catatumbo storm, this one during the daylight hours.

    A shelf cloud from the storm approaches el Congo village.

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    Lightning flashes light up the sky and illuminate the Palafitos.

    My ghostly outline, lit up by nearly continuous flashes of lightning.

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    This is the open toilet in the Palafito we stayed at. It was pretty basic to say the least but the most interesting part was the schools of catfish living in the water below that were eager to slash around and gobble up anything that dropped into the water...