An Everlasting Lightning Storm
The third hidden wonder of South America.
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.
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.
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."
In addition to being the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer is the author of Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, which grew out of a story he wrote for Slate.
Photographs by Erik Quiroga.