Catatumbo, an everlasting lightning storm and symphony of light
October 26, 2013 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Catatumbo lightning (action at 5:17) is a mysterious and amazing celestial light show that happens from 160 to 300 nights a year, up to 280 times an hour and up to 10 hours per night. It is a powerful and nearly continuous thunderstorm with up to 40,000 bolts of lightning per night that flash mostly from cloud to cloud. The indigenous people call it the River of Fire in the Sky. It takes place in a remote, poor [in Spanish], politically troubled and dangerous corner of the planet, in Catatumbo, Venezuela on Lake Maracaibo, where the houses are all on stilts.

Some excellent photographs of the area by Alan Highton.

The Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon, "Relámpago del Catatumbo", is still relatively undocumented by storm chasers. George Kourounis is one of the few who have been to this remote place.

Another view by a weathercaster who uses the word 'inaudiable' to describe the thunder.

In 2010 for two months the people feared that they had lost their river of fire, but it returned with a vengeance. It seems that the lightning strikes are even more violent now than ever before, possibly because of El Niño.

The power of the lightning is as ferocious as it is relentless, at up to 10 times more powerful than an average strike. Bolts carrying 400,000 amps of current are routinely recorded. By contrast, your typical lightning bolt might carry 30,000 amps.

The fire in the sky has burned for thousands of years, the ancient people believed it was caused by the fireflies paying tribute to the spirits of creation. The lightning caused the defeat of Sir Francis Drake in 1595 when his ships were spotted trying to sneak up the river in the middle of the night.

A mini topographical map of the Catatumbo area.

On Wikipedia. About the 12% of the planet's ozone produced by the lightning.

If you are inclined to travel there, an eco-tourist camp in Catatumbo, called Cocolight and another one called FranBrasil. Both with good info on their sites

Video of old and new views of Maracaibo, Venezuela [in Spanish].

Bonus link: in case you'd like to experience a lullaby of 10 hours of continuous lightning, thunder and rain.
posted by nickyskye (10 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes it can be seen from as far as 250 - 300 miles away. I have seen it from CuraƧao... or rather, i think I have seen it. Cloud-to-cloud flashes in the right direction and far, far away...
posted by DreamerFi at 12:53 PM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's a Google Maps link showing the way the lake is basically a bowl catching a bunch of sea winds.
posted by Nelson at 12:56 PM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do we have a cool planet or what?
posted by rtha at 1:39 PM on October 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

Wow, some stunning images. Thanks for the post.

The fire in the sky has burned for thousands of years, the ancient people believed it was caused by the fireflies paying tribute to the spirits of creation.
Science is amazing, and all, but it really does take the poetry out of things sometimes.

also, eponysterical
posted by billiebee at 1:47 PM on October 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Do we have a cool planet or what?

Yes... but getting warmer.
posted by drhydro at 2:40 PM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do we have a cool planet or what?

Yes... but getting warmer.

Hot enough for you yet?
*Zeus tosses another one*
posted by BlueHorse at 3:06 PM on October 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I bet Catatumbo lightning is plate tectonic lightning, probably driven by piezoelectricity.

From a Guardian article about the 2010 cessation event:
The Guardian, Friday 5 March 2010 07.22 EST
But now the lightning has vanished. A phenomenon that once unleashed up to 20,000 bolts a night stopped in late January. Not a single bolt has been seen since.

"This is unprecedented. In recorded history we have not had such a long stretch without lightning," said Erik Quiroga, an environmentalist and leading authority on the Relampago de Catatumbo, or Catatumbo Lightning.
The last time the phenomenon vanished was in 1906 after a catastrophic 8.8-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Ecuador and Colombia unleashed a tsunami. The lightning returned three weeks later
So, what was shaking in early 2010?

Oh, nothing much:
The 2010 Chile earthquake occurred off the coast of central Chile on Saturday, 27 February 2010, at 03:34 local time (06:34 UTC), having a magnitude of 8.8 on the moment magnitude scale, with intense shaking lasting for about three minutes.[5][1][2][6] It ranks as the sixth largest earthquake ever to be recorded by a seismograph
The lightning stopped because the earthquakes temporarily relieved the mechanical stress which was producing the piezoelectricity.

The interesting thing about the 2010 cessation is that the lightning stopped about a month before the quake, implying, in my view, that the stress went down (in the Catatumbo area) well before the quake-- and that we'd better start looking around if it ever stops flashing again.
posted by jamjam at 3:08 PM on October 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

Why would plate tectonics cause cloud to cloud lightning? And have you seen how far it is from northern Venezuala to central Chile?
It seems to me you've tried a bit too hard to find a correlation.
posted by edd at 4:13 AM on October 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Last year I had the good fortune of accompanying Alan Highton to his camp in Catatumbo and watching the lightning storm. It was indeed an unforgettable experience. We took a small motorboat out to the middle of the lake (the lake is so large that the trip took about two hours, but we were entertained along the way by, among other things, sights of dolphins playing in the brackish water). The lightning happens at night, so after a meal of crabs and other creatures caught on the lake that day, we bedded down outside on the porch of the camp in hammocks covered in mosquito nets. Alan woke us at about 1 or 2 am when the lightning started. It was absolutely beautiful - it would put even the best fireworks display to shame. It lasted a long time; probably over a half hour. I couldn't get enough of it. It was also fascinating to see and speak to the families that live out on the lake. They are extremely isolated, yet live surrounded by beauty. This is truly a wondrous place on the planet earth.
posted by Shebear at 6:58 AM on October 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Shebear, that's way cool you actually saw this incredible phenomenon and with Alan Highton, whose pics are really superb. What an adventure!
posted by nickyskye at 7:23 PM on October 27, 2013

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