Catatumbo Lightning

"Catatumbo lightning" forms nearly every day . The hot tropical sun evaporates water from the lake and surrounding wetland. As night approaches, the trade winds from the sea push this warm air into cold air cascading down from the mountains. The hot air rises and dense cumulonimbus clouds form as towering plumes reaching up to 40,000 ft high. This air rises rapidly (the hotter the day, the faster the air rises), and thunder clouds are formed.. And it is these clouds that discharge during the night as lightning. Mountains surround the Lago de Maracaibo basin, which influence wind patterns that promote convergence zones at the surface. These convergence zones form nightly and in generally the same location in the Lago de Maracaibo basin, creating the thunderstorms that produce the Catatumbo lightning. As this is in the tropics, the heating of the lake water and then the forming of thunder clouds, happens throughout the year and is not reliant on a seasonal factor. It is difficult to get a precise figure, but the thunder storms appear to occur about half the days in the year.

These distinctive storm clouds might look fluffy on the outside but inside a battle is raging. Where water droplets in the rising humid air collide with ice crystals in the cold air, static charges are produced and an electrical storm is unleashed. The static electricity discharges in zig-zags of lightning that strike the ground, pass between clouds or flash inside them. The thunder itself is the shock wave of sound created when the heat of the lightning suddenly compresses the surrounding air.

The type of lightning itself is not unique, but what is unique is that it occurs regularly in the same place night after night. The storms form with enough reliable frequency that they have historically been used as a maritime navigational aid.

The following incorrect myths are often repeated in news articles and documentaries:

1: "Catatumbo lightning is a special or rare type of lightning": Not true, Catatumbo lighting is the same sort of lightning that you can see anywhere in the world. The only reason that Catatumbo storms are notable is because they consistently form in the same place night after night.

2: "Catatumbo lightning is caused/coloured by methane from swamps": Methane from bogs and swamps is often cited as a cause and/or a contributing factor for both the Catatumbo thunderstorms and the lightning itself. This is highly unlikely, as thunderstorm formation requires large-scale atmospheric forces: instability, moisture and lift. The topography, wind configuration and tropical climate in the Lago de Maracaibo region alone produces these three ingredients that trigger the storms - any methane produced by the swamps is an irrelevant factor. There are other locations on earth with similar topographical configurations that also generate frequent thunderstorms without the presence of swamps and gases .

3: "Catatumbo lightning produces no thunder": The last common myth regarding Catatumbo lightning is that it rarely produces thunder, due to either 1.) the lightning being a special type that produces no thunder or 2.) the lightning being primarily at high altitudes within the cloud. However all lightning produces thunder. If thunder is inaudible, it is due to the observer being too far away to hear it. Thunder is rarely audible to an observer at distances of more than 15 miles away from the lightning. Even thunder inside the highest reaches of a thunderstorm will still be audible to an observer who is within a few miles of the storm base.

When the lightning display starts, there are two main effects, the first being sheets of lightning high in the clouds, which, with us, were illuminating about 40 times a minute. These sheets of lighting are interspersed by more occasional forks of lighting grounding in the distance. The larger ones burn an impression on your retina so that, after seeing a strike, if you closed your eyes, you could still see the bolt’s jagged shape as it zapped from the clouds to the ground..

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In the well loaded small launch of Alan's, we left the town of Concha, and headed for about half an hour down the river to get to Lake Maracaibo. We had our group of 6 guests, our group leader Max, Alan the local guide, the driver, our baggage, food for all of us for 2 days, spare fuel for the boat.

En route we stopped for lunch at the ranger post for the national park, set on stilts in the lake. It was the last remains of the original village of Concha, which had been a traditional stilt village, but now has removed to the current site on dry land, with the better access to transport and services. The main work is fishing for blue crab, and is said to be very lucrative. As far as I can see, there are about 5,000 local fishermen, each catching on average half a ton of crabs a year The crabs are now under threat from overfishing (there has been a move from nets to long line fishing), and from oil polution fom wells in Lake Maracaibo. The USA constitutes 95% of the consumers of the delicacy, which is not popular anyway in its native Venezuela.

Our customers appreciate the superior quality and taste of our product which is always fresh, wild-caught blue crab meat from Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Chefs find our product their perfect choice. Fresh blue crab meat has a mild aroma and a sweet, succulent, buttery flavor. It can be used in pasta dishes, gumbo, stuffing, salads, or everyone’s favorite…crab cakes! The body meat is delicately flavored, white, tender and flaky.  On the other hand, claw meat is nutty and brownish in tint.

We stayed at Alan Highton's shack at Ologa to observe the lightning effects. We had been lead to believe from our Wild Frontiers notes, that this was a "traditional communal hut". In the event, the only word of these that turned out to be true, was that it was "communal". It could not be described as "traditional" - it was made of somewhat decayed concrete, with the jetty sloping off at a precarious angle into the water. Nor was it a hut, it was a shack. The concrete construction, described by Chris as a "blockhouse", sat on stilts over the water, with another concrete bridge at the back leading to a thin strip of land

The discharge from the toilet fell directly into the sea, and was flushed by filling a bucket with lake water and using that to rinse the loo clean - with that water also discharging directly into the sea. The shower was also somewhat primitive - see photo below

The whole shack was encased in iron grilles, to protect the place when Alan was not there, so the effect was like living in a prison cell

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The first night we had a very good barbecue meal, but the second night we were fed an enormous bowl of plain spaghetti with a sauce of tined tuna and tomato ketchup. The group left the entire contents of the bowl of spaghetti, but Alan never commented - I assume he was trying to cut the cost of feeding us. We had seen blue crabs being landed in Concha, and had requested them, but they never appeared. In addition, the employment of the men from the village was fishing, so one would have though that fresh fish could have been procured. We had in fact had seemingly very good fish for lunch here on the second day - but some of us were a trifle dubious about it: out of which portion of water had it been caught??

Breakfasts were fine with lots of fresh fruit, even very welcome muesli and fresh milk on the first morning.

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Butterflies are another of Alan’s specialties: he lures them with rotten bananas. But on our trip the bait was not taken by the butterflies

We had a couple of pleasant trips out into the river and its mangrove surrounds where we saw a cayman, plus lots of birds

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The reason for coming here is, of course, the Catatumbo Lightning. As we got back from our trip up the river, we saw the anvil shaped thunder clouds forming, a good portent for a thundery night. By the early hours of the morning, the storm was in full flow. Alan took shots of Chris and me, and Jeannette. He tried and failed to get one of Jennifer. Each shot required an exposure of about 20 seconds, followed by a period of rest, before another 20 second exposure, and so on. It was the luck of the draw as to whether a good lightning strike occurred in the 20 seconds or not. Out best shot had a great strike, but it is hidden by my body. Jeannette's came out as a classic. Poor Jennifer in spite of many poses, never got a photo for her album

The storms were not as dramatic the second night, with only the high up, inter cloud, lightning being seen, and not the more dramatic lightning strikes.

And so after two days be headed back to Concha in the boat. There was a stop at the larger village of Congo Mirador.

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Sadly Congo Mirador, built on stilts over water, is likely soon to be uninhabitable, as the place is silting up due to changes in the river flow, and the water under the village is only a few feet deep. Without depth of water, they cannot get in and out to fish. The village has a church, various shops and bars, a school, and reasonably reliable electricity

Once back in Concha, it was onto another bus and heading towards Merida, with first a stop overnight at an Estancia in the mountains

On to Merida

Colombia - Venezuela Holiday