There is a saying that the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. For those people living in a little village called Catatumbo in Venezuela, they can add lightning to that list – for Catatumbo has been declared the ‘lightning capital’ of the world.
Thunderstorms, which produce lightning, can occur almost anywhere. Around the world there are approximately 40 to 50 lightning discharges per second, or nearly 1.5 million each year.
Until recently it was thought that the (some would say unenviable) record for the most lightning activity, was Kifuka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Kifuka is a small village in the central-eastern mountains of the DRC, five degrees north of the equator, lying at an elevation of 970m. The combination of warm, moist air forced to rise above the mountains, is enough to see an average of 158 lightning discharges per square km each year.
Unfortunately for Kifuka there is a new kid on the block, claiming a far higher frequency of lightning discharges.
The village of Catatumbo in northern Venezuela, lies on the shore of Lake Maracaibo. It is said to experience as many as 250 discharges per square km each year. That translates into 28 visible flashes in the area every minute.
Several factors combine to make Catatumbo so prone to lightning. Lake Maracaibo is a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by mountains. It tends to trap the warm, moist trade winds blowing in off the Caribbean Sea.
This warm, moisture-laden air is overlain by cool, dry air which spills in off the Andes to the west. A big decrease in temperature through the atmosphere is one of the main requisites of the cumulonimbus clouds which eventually produce lightning.
The warm air is naturally buoyant. It rises through the atmosphere, cooling and condensing into clouds as it does so. As the rising air reaches higher elevations the water droplets turn to ice and it is friction between ice and water droplets which helps to set up the electrical charges in the cloud.
When the difference between positive and negative charges within the cloud becomes too great, a discharge takes place from the cloud to the ground, within the cloud, or from the cloud into the surrounding atmosphere.
Catatumbo’s crowning is the result of campaigning by local environmentalist Eric Quiroga who has spent more than 20 years studying the phenomenon.