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Catatumbo lightning, an impressive electrical phenomenon

Catatumbo Lightning

Catatumbo lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon in Venezuela. It occurs only over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo.

It originates from a mass of storm clouds at a height of more than 1 km, and occurs during 260 nights a year, 10 hours per day and up to 280 times per hour. It occurs over and around Lake Maracaibo, typically over the bog area formed where the Catatumbo River flows into the lake.

Catatumbo Lightning changes its frequency along the year, and it is different from year to year. For example, it ceased from January to March 2010, apparently due to drought, temporarily raising fears that it might have been extinguished permanently.

By ​English Wikipedia user Thechemicalengineer, CC BY-SA 3.0

How does Catatumbo lightning work

The Catatumbo lightning phenomenon occurs over and around Lake Maracaibo. The storms (and associated lightning) are likely the result of the winds blowing across the Maracaibo Lake and surrounding swampy plains.

These air masses inevitably meet the high mountain ridges of the Andes, the Perijá Mountains (3,750 m), and Mérida’s Cordillera, enclosing the plain from three sides. The heat and moisture collected across the plains creates electrical charges and, as the air masses are destabilized by the mountain ridges, result in thunderstorm activity.

By Fernando Flores – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The phenomenon is characterized by almost continuous lightning, mostly within the clouds, which is produced in a large vertical development of clouds.

The lightnings produce a great quantity of ozone though its instability makes it dubious that it has any effect on the ozonosphere.

By Fernando Flores – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


A more recent study has shown that it is possible to forecast lightning in the Lake Maracaibo basin up to a few months in advance, based in the variability of the Lake Maracaibo Low-Level Jet and its interactions with predictable climate modes like ENSO and the Caribbean Low-Level Jet.

The study also shows that the forecast skill is significantly higher when an index based on a combination of winds and convective available potential energy is used. The index seems to capture well the compound effect of multiple climate drivers.

In order to calibrate physical and statistical models to make their forecasts, a team has been acquiring data with tethered balloons and micro-weather stations tied to the balloon’s line.

By Centro de Modelado Científico – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0


Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr