For as long as anybody can remember, where the Catatumbo River empties into Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, there has been lightning. For an average of 160 nights a year, 16-40 cloud-to-cloud strikes light the air above the waters of the lake. As many as 20,000 bolts have been recorded in a single night. But that all stopped in January 2010…there have been no strikes since then.
In an online article at The Guardian, locals are concerned about the lack of lightning :
Fishermen in the village of Congo Mirador, a collection of wooden huts on stilts at the phenomenon’s epicentre, are puzzled and anxious by its absence. “It has always been with us,” said Edin Hernandez, 62. “It guides us at night, like a lighthouse. We miss it.”
There has been lightning in the skies around here for most of recorded history :
Electrical storms, product of a unique meteorological phenomenon, have lit up nights in this corner of Venezuela for thousands of years. Francis Drake abandoned a sneak attack on the city of Maracaibo in 1595 when lightning betrayed his ships to the Spanish garrison.
“This is unprecedented. In recorded history we have not had such a long stretch without lightning,” said Erik Quiroga, an environmentalist and leading authority on the Relampago de Catatumbo, or Catatumbo Lightning.
It appears to scientists that El Niño is to blame for the disruption of this phenomenon. The theory is that El Niño has caused a drought in the area, drying up the lakes and rivers that normally exist, and which contribute to the creation of the lightning. Another theory links it to decomposing organic matter which release methane. Yet another theory links it to Andean winds blowing across marshes, generating low pressure and building up an electrical charge in the atmosphere.
The last time the lightning disappeared? In 1906 when a catastrophic 8.8 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Ecuador and Colombia unleashed a tsunami. The lightning returned three weeks later. But the long delay in the lightning’s return this time have locals worried.
Losing the lightning is a symbolic blow. In addition to warding off Drake’s naval assault – an event celebrated in Lope de Vega’s 1598 epic poem – it is credited with helping independence fighters defeat a Spanish fleet in 1823. The state of Zulia, which encompasses Lake Maracaibo, has a lightning bolt across its centre and refers to the phenomenon in its anthem.
Quiroga worries that when rains return the lightning may not recover its former glory. It was dwindling in frequency and force even before the drought, probably because deforestation and agriculture had clogged the Catatumbo river and several lagoons with silt.
“This is a unique gift and we are at risk of losing it,” said Quiroga, who has led scientific teams to its epicentre. He has lobbied Venezuelan authorities to protect the area and the United Nations to recognise it as a world heritage site. A Unesco spokeswoman said there were no plans to do so because electrical storms did not have a “site”.
For more information about the Catatumbo Lightning, check out this brief Wikipedia article.