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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