An everlasting lightning storm that rages 260 days a year in the lawless border region of Venezuela.

Curious and exotic places.
Feb. 8 2011 6:54 AM

An Everlasting Lightning Storm

The third hidden wonder of South America.

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PUERTO CONCHA, Venezuela—Normally, there is just an hour between the sun going down and the sky lighting up over the Catatumbo Delta. It's already dusk, and Dylan and I are sitting on a dock in a dusty fishing village, warily watching the clouds and waiting for a small boat to carry us up the shore of Lake Maracaibo and into the middle of what may be the world's most perfect storm.

We've traveled nearly 15 hours from Bogotá, Colombia, to get to this out-of-the-way corner of western Venezuela, with the hope of seeing one of the strangest weather phenomena in the world. Here, where the Catatumbo River empties into South America's largest lake, an "everlasting lightning storm" rages continuously for up to 10 hours a night, in exactly the same place, 260 nights a year. Nowhere else on Earth is so much lightning concentrated in one spot, with such regularity.

Erik Quiroga, a Caracas-based environmentalist who has accompanied us, looks down at his watch. "It's going to start any minute," he says, excited. All day, as we sped across the scorched, flat Venezuelan countryside in an air-conditioned SUV, he'd been predicting a 7:15 p.m. start for the storm. Promptly, as if on cue, the clouds flash a phosphorescent pink, and a bolt of lightning fractures the sky. Quiroga grins and flashes us his watch. It shows exactly a quarter past 7.

Map part 3.

Known as the "Beacon of Maracaibo," the Catatumbo lightning has guided sailors for centuries. It can sometimes be seen on the horizon from as far away as the Lesser Antilles, more than 200 miles distant. In his 1597 poem "The Dragontea," which tells the story of Sir Francis Drake's last expedition, Spanish poet Lope de Vega tells how the lightning—"flames, which the wings of night cover"—illuminated the silhouettes of the English privateer's ships, tipping off the garrison at Maracaibo to his surprise attack. During the last major naval skirmish of the Venezuelan war of independence in 1823, the lightning was said to have helped steer the ships of Adm. José Prudencio Padilla to victory over the Spanish fleet. The storm is so central to the region's identity that the state of Zulia put a large lightning bolt in the middle of its flag.

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And then last year, suddenly and unexpectedly, the storm seemed to stop. According to reports in Venezuelan papers that were then picked up by the international press, the skies above Catatumbo went dark for six weeks between the end of January and the beginning of March 2010. "It was the longest disappearance of the lightning in 104 years," said Quiroga, who blamed a drought caused by 2009's especially strong El Niño. "This is a unique gift and we are at risk of losing it," he told the Guardian.

In 2002, Quiroga launched a campaign to have the Catatumbo lightning pronounced the world's first UNESCO World Heritage Weather Phenomenon—a seemingly quixotic crusade, given that thus far the organization has only recognized physical places. Not only is the lightning a natural wonder, it is also, he argues, crucial to the global ecosystem. As it rips through the air, lightning tears apart oxygen molecules in its path, some of which rearrange to form ozone. (The word ozone, from the Greek for "to smell," was coined because of the strange odor that lingers after lightning storms.) Discharging more than 1.2 million times each year, the Catatumbo storm is, Quiroga argues, the single greatest individual natural source of ozone in the world.

Quiroga is the Catatumbo lightning's No. 1 cheerleader and fan. He helped spread the story of the lightning's 2010 disappearance, and he has promoted an "International Day of the Ozone Layer" to call attention to the storm's role as "the primary source of stratospheric ozone." When I contacted him to let him know that we were going to be visiting Catatumbo, he offered to come along as our guide and to help make all the necessary arrangements with the local authorities.

The U.S. State Department and many European foreign ministries advise against traveling in the state of Zulia or any part of Venezuela within 50 miles of the Colombian border. The area is a haven for drug-traffickers, guerrillas, and armed gangs of various stripes. During our eight-hour drive south from the Maracaibo airport, we passed through no fewer than nine different police and military checkpoints. Our driver, an official in the regional environmental ministry, spent a disconcerting portion of the ride telling us how worried his mother was about him traveling in this part of the state.

Cloud-to-cloud lightning over Lake Maracaibo.
Cloud-to-cloud lightning over Lake Maracaibo

Quiroga, who makes the trip at least once a year, didn't seem so concerned. He stuck his hand out of the window and sized up the hot, dry air, which was approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and pronounced that the conditions were shaping up perfectly for a massive evening storm. He pointed at a nearly symmetrical mushroom-shaped cumulonimbus cloud floating alone at the horizon and dubbed it the "most perfect" he'd seen in months. "Tonight will be something special," he said.

Why this particular spot should be the site of the world's most perfect storm is still an open question. For a while, during the 1960s, it was thought that uranium in the bedrock of the Maracaibo basin might somehow be the trigger. According to Ángel Muñoz, who leads a team that studies the lightning at the University of Zulia's Center for Scientific Modeling, the storm is caused by a more mundane, but still unique, convergence of local and regional factors.

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