Beacon of Maracaibo – Catatumbo Everlasting Lightning Storm

Where is the Beacon of Maracaibo?

If you are going in northeastern Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River joins Lake Maracaibo, you can view a remarkable natural display virtually every night. The Beacon of Maracaibo. The “Catatumbo Everlasting Lightning Storm”. The “river of fire in the sky”. The “Maracaibo Lighthouse”. The “eternal lightning in Catatumbo”. Are all names for the phenomena.

The storm is not an odd fierce strike here and there. Oh no! It occurs on average 260 nights a year and up to 280 times per hour. It rages on for up to 10 hours each night. That’s an earth-shattering 1.2 million lightning bolts per year. It’s no surprise that the Catatumbo Lightning is also known as “the perpetual storm” and “Maracaibo’s Beacon.”

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The persistent flashes of the lightning are so strong that they are clearly visible from 250 miles (400 kilometres) away. The beacon of Maracaibo virtually always illuminates Lake Maracaibo and the surrounding environs because the storm lasts up to ten hours a night. Colonial soldiers employed these strong flashes of light for navigating in the past.

What causes so much lightning at the mouth of Catatumbo River?

Researchers are not really sure what causes so much lightning at the mouth of Catatumbo River. One theory is that the methane from the oilfields below the lake increases the conductivity of the surface of the water. Strong winds blew in from the adjacent Andes Mountains, carrying the methane gas into the atmosphere. Another theory suggests that uranium deposits in the bedrock attract more lightning bolts. Neither one of the theories has been confirmed so far. So as of now, the reason behind these lightning strikes has been credited to a powerful composition of topography and wind patterns.

Catatumbo Everlasting Lightning Storm, the Beacon of Maracaibo the unique phenomenon in the world

One surprising element with these consistent lightning bolts is the prominent absence of accompanying thunder. Some people are of the belief that Catatumbo lightning does not cause thunder, this is actually a myth. The lack of audio is due to the fact that the storm occurs nearly 50-100 kilometers away from the witnesses. According to science, hearing thunder is nearly impossible if you are 15 miles (25 kilometers) or more away from the lightning bolt. So that explains it!

The Catatumbo lightning also finds a mention in the history of Venezuela. A poem called ‘The Dragontea’ written by a Spanish poet in 1597 narrates how Sir Francis Drake’s 1595 attempt to capture Maracaibo failed because of Catatumbo lightning. His attempts to launch a clandestine raid and the subsequent attack were defeated when the ceaseless lightning illuminated the lake at night.

Catatumbo Everlasting Lightning Storm, the Beacon of Maracaibo the unique phenomenon in the world

Catatumbo Lightning as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In the year 2014, The Guinness Organization delivered the certification that recognizes Catatumbo Lightning as a unique meteorological phenomenon. Due to its unique potentialities, the Venezuelan Government is trying to catalogue the Catatumbo Lightning as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a result, UNESCO listed the very first natural phenomenon on its list.

Visit the nearby villages of Ologa or Congo Mirador to witness this natural wonder. Tours to the Catatumbo Lightning run from Mérida, a lively town at the foot of the Andes. The lightning is most spectacular during the wet season, around October. It’s also ideal if you want to see Venezuela’s most popular attraction, Angel Falls in Canaima National Park. Both attractions are utterly spectacular in the wet season, and should be on every travellers’ bucket list.


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