Behold an Astonishing Near-Nightly Spectacle in the Lightning Capital of the World

Extreme weather conditions have become a topic of grave concern. Are floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and catastrophic storms the new normal?

Just for a moment, let’s travel to a place where extreme weather has always been the norm: Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela.

According to NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission‘s lightning image sensor, it is the lightning capital of the world.

Chalk it up to the unique geography and climate conditions near the confluence of the lake and the Catatumbo River. At night, the moist warm air above the water collides with cool breezes rolling down from the Andes, creating an average of 297 thunderstorms a year.

Watching photographer Jonas Piontek‘s short film documenting the phenomenon, above, it’s not surprising that chief among his tips for shooting lightning at night is a pointed warning to always keep a safe distance from the storm. While viewable from as far as 400 kilometers away, the area nearest the lightning activity can average 28 strikes per minute.

More than 400 years before Piontek shared his impressions with the world, Spanish poet Lope de Vega tapped Catatumbo lightning in his epic 1597 poem La Dragontea, crediting it, erroneously, with having  thwarted Sir Francis Drake‘s plans to conquer the city of Maracaibo under cover of night. His poetic license was persuasive enough that it’s still an accepted part of the myth.

The “eternal storm” did however give Venezuelan naval forces a genuine natural assist, by illuminating a squadron of Spanish ships on Lake Maracaibo, which they defeated on July 24, 1823, clearing the way to independence.

Once upon a time, large numbers of local fishermen took advantage of their prime position to fish by night, although with recent deforestation, political conflict, and economic decline decimating the villages where they live in traditional stilted houses, their livelihood is in decline.

Meanwhile the Eternal Storm has itself been affected by forces of extreme weather. In 2010, a drought occasioned by a particularly strong El Niño, caused lightning activity to cease for 6 weeks, its longest disappearance in 104 years.

Environmentalist Erik Quiroga, who is campaigning for the Catatumbo lightning to be designated as the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Weather Phenomenon warns, “This is a unique gift and we are at risk of losing it.”

See more of Jonas Piontek’s Catatumbo lightning photographs here.

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Sue says:

    Hoping to correct a potential misunderstanding. Earthquakes have NOTHING to do with weather or climate change, they come from geologic processes.

    After an earthquake, however, bad weather, made worse by climate change, can cause additional problems for survivors and rescuers.

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