Where The Lightning Never Stops In Venezuela

“Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does all the work.” —Mark Twain

In A Nutshell

From anywhere between 260 and 300 nights out of any given year, the skies over the Catatumbo River in Venezuela are lit by lightning. And not just any kind of lightning; on average, each nightly storm lasts about 10 hours, and the skies are torn by thousands of lightning bolts each night. The phenomenon has been recorded as far back as the 16th century, and it’s a unique combination of the area’s topography and mixing air currents that cause these nightly storms.

The Whole Bushel

With blatant disregard for the long-told myth that lightning never strikes in the same place twice, a lightning storm has been raging over one area in Venezuela almost every night for hundreds of years. Between 260 and 300 nights a year, storms light up the sky over the Catatumbo River in Venezuela. Each nightly lightning storm rages for nine to ten hours, and there’s so much lightning that area residents take measures to darken the inside of their homes in order to get some sleep.

In an average year, there are about 1.2 million flashes of lightning in the night sky. Thunder accompanies each lightning strike, but the storms are generally high enough up in the atmosphere that those on the ground can’t hear it.

Not surprisingly, the lightning storm has a prominent position in the area’s history. Acting as a natural lighthouse, the storm has been used as a landmark for sailors throughout the nautical history of the country. Guiding friendly ships, it’s also allowed land-based troops to spot potential attackers when they were still miles and miles away. Sir Francis Drake was one of the would-be attackers who had his mission foiled by the lightning.

It was also crucial in naval battles that led to Venezuela’s independence from Spain, for much the same reason.

The cause of this massive lightning storm has long been the subject of much debate. The current theory is that the unique, V-shaped mountain range that surrounds the area presents the right conditions for trapping warm winds coming out of the Caribbean. When cold air coming down off the Andes Mountains drops, lightning storms form along the change in temperature.

Add in the huge amounts of methane that leak into the air from the oil fields below Lake Maracaibo; along with the massive amounts of decaying plant matter and the gases released by that, researchers think that the gas buildup changes the normal conductivity of the air and makes it the perfect place for a prolonged lightning superstorm.

While it’s not a confirmed theory, it’s a likely one that’s supported by the disappearance of the lightning storm when there have been major changes in some parts of the environment; it’s unlikely to be one or two factors, but a convergence of several.

In 1906, the lightning disappeared for three weeks after a major earthquake and resulting tsunami. In 2010, a drought caused by El Niño also led to the temporary halt of the lightning storms. Locals had, worryingly, noticed a lull in the strength of the storms in recent years as well, and said it was most likely because of the deforestation that was happening in the area and the clogging of the river with agricultural runoff.

The lightning came back after several months, but it’s still disturbing evidence on how the natural balance is shifting to disrupt something that has been such a well-documented phenomenon for centuries.

It’s something the planet can ill afford to lose, too. The massive lightning storms put out much more than light and energy: They also form ozone. The change in pressure around a lightning bolt, along with the massive amounts of heat generated, allows oxygen and nitrogen to join together more easily. The two molecules are little more than a reluctant pairing, and sunlight often shakes the atoms loose. But ozone is crucial to the survival of the planet; when it’s high in the atmosphere where lighting storms happen, it helps shield us from harmful rays.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image photo credit: Worlds9thwonder
io9: A place in Venezuela that gets 40,000 lightning strikes per night
Slate: An everlasting lightning storm
The Guardian: Drought extinguishes Venezuela’s lightning phenomenon

  • Lisa 39

    Lightning storms are awesome to watch, I would love to see these ones in person, I like the ideas behind what causes them also, very interesting, good article Debra.

    • TheMadHatter

      They can be fun to listen to at times, as well. Especially from your basement closet. With a book, a radio, and a flashlight.

      • Lisa 39

        We only do that for tornados, I love to watch lightening storms, the most beautiful one I ever saw was 3 years ago in Tennessee, my 2 cousins both in their early 50’s and my brother and I, in our mid 40’s were standing in my aunt and uncles front yard just watching the whole sky light up, so beautiful, then my little 4’10” 70yr old aunt came out on the porch and told us kids to get our behinds in the house, we said OK but walked really really slowly, We don’t get called kids very often these days lol

        • Nathaniel A.

          Interesting, where in Tennessee does your aunt live?

          • Lisa 39

            Lawrenceburg, my grandma and aunt are in the city, my parents live 5 minutes from grandma, and my aunt and uncle live 12 miles away on a horse farm, they also have a few cows and a bull, and Jake their collie 🙂

          • Is that in Roane county?

          • Lisa 39

            Lawrenceburg county

          • I’ve never been to TN, but am apparently related to much of Roane county.

          • Lisa 39

            Tennessee is beautiful, I love driving thru it, the mountains are beautiful but I like mountains, my aunt and uncles farm is up on a mountain which is nice because when its 90° in the city its at least 10° cooler on the farm because of the breeze, Advice of the day, do not under any circumstances drive through Nashville during rush hour, especially the highway, I65 to be specific, I thought I was having a heart attack the last time, it was an anxiety attack, that was 3 years ago, rush hour = bad juju

          • …do not…drive through Nashville…

            Not gonna happen, I stopped driving about 10 years ago.

          • Lisa 39

            To irritating? I agree, but I really like to drive, especially fast, in Tennessee and Kentucky the speed limits on the highways are between 70 and 75, the cops don’t even pull you over unless you’re going over 90!

          • No, driving was always a great joy. I drove muscle cars, mainly, GTO, Porsche, Mustang. I quit driving because I take medication which makes me a major hazard on the road. The last time I was behind the wheel I caused an accident in which 3 cars were totaled. Thankfully, no one was injured, but it was a wake-up call.

          • Lisa 39

            Wow, I’m sorry about that segue, and i’m glad that you weren’t hurt to, I still think you’re one of the coolest people here in terms of cool things you’ve done!

          • Thank you, Lisa. I’m really glad I got to do the things I did before I got sick.

          • Lisa 39

            Me to, it allows me to live vicariously through your awesome life stories!

          • TheMadHatter

            I went on a vacation to the grand ole oprey. We had to walk thirty minutes after we parked, plus there was construction going on during rush hour. Construction during rush hour in Nashville. OMIGOD. The oprey was grand though.

          • Whats the address

          • Lisa 39

            Third mountain on the right.

    • Kavish Malhotra

      sometimes they are scary when its right above you and you are in a fiels with u being the tallest

      • Lisa 39

        I agree, I like to watch them when they’re far away, if its close to me I go indoors. I read somewhere that if you’re someplace like a field to lay down flat on the ground, its safer 🙂

  • WendyFragoso

    I do not have any idea for the lightning stop in the Venezuela .
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  • Spartachilles

    Nitrogen and oxygen combining to make ozone? I thought ozone was just three oxygen atoms together?

    • daathsurfer

      Yep. That it is.

      • enrrff

        that wrong

        • daathsurfer

          Yes huh-uh.

  • Dray Day

    did the lightning Ever came back

  • I love it when people come together and share opinions.
    Great website, keep it up!