Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela is one of the largest bodies of water in South America. This is the scene of one of the most spectacular natural phenomenon on earth, an intense electric storm that lights up the skies for up to 10 hours a day, 250 nights a year. Due to changing levels of dust and vapour, the lightning here takes on an array of colours, adding extra beauty to the world’s longest lasting storm.
The flashes are so bright they can be seen up to 400 km away, and for centuries were used by Caribbean sailors to navigate the treacherous seas. Strangely, thunder is normally absent from this mighty display because the storms normally occur more than 50 km away from those observing them.
The peak time of year is during the wet season from October to November, when an average of 28 lightning strikes each minute is common.
The reason why this area is such an electrical hotspot is still not completely understood, and theories range from mythical fireflies encountering spirits, to underground methane and uranium.
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The most likely explanation is probably that the topography of the region produces a unique environment for closed wind circulation. Massive Lake Maracaibo is surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides, from which cool air flows down to clash with the water evaporating in the tropical sun. When this warm air is forced upwards by the ocean wind it creates towering cumulonimbus clouds up to 12 km high, inside which static charges are produced by colliding droplets of water and ice.
The resulting storms are so reliable and frequent the local people see them as a part of everyday life and are puzzled by visitors’ eagerness to stay awake and watch the show. Most of the population live in fishing villages built on stilts over the water which hundreds of years ago reminded the early Spanish explorers of Venice, and gave the country its name.
The area is of special scientific interest for researchers and storm chasers, and there are plenty of tours that visit the lake for those who want to witness the spectacle first hand.
Photo: NASA’s Marshall Space