December 8, 2023

Extreme weather conditions have become a matter of serious concern. Are floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and catastrophic storms the new normal?

Let’s travel for a moment to a place where extreme weather has always been the norm: Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela.

It’s the lightning capital of the world, according to NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission lightning imaging sensor.

Recall the unique geographical and climatic conditions near the confluence of the lake and the Catatumbo River. At night, moist, warm air over the water collides with cool breezes rolling in from the Andes, creating an average of 297 thunderstorms a year.

Watching photographer Jonas Piontek’s short film documenting the phenomenon, above, it’s no wonder that his tips for photographing lightning at night include a strong warning to always keep a safe distance from the storm. While visible from up to 400 kilometers away, the area closest to the lightning activity can average 28 strikes per minute.

More than 400 years before Piontek shared his impressions with the world, the Spanish poet Lope de Vega tapped the lightning of Catatumbo in his 1597 epic poem La Dragontea, mistakenly crediting it with thwarting Sir Francis Drake’s plans to conquer the city of Maracaibo under patronage night. His poetic license was convincing enough that he is still an accepted part of the mythos.

However, the “Eternal Storm” provided real natural assistance to the Venezuelan naval forces by illuminating a squadron of Spanish ships on Lake Maracaibo, which they defeated on July 24, 1823, clearing the way for independence.

Once upon a time, large numbers of local fishermen used their prime position for night fishing, although with recent deforestation, political conflict and economic decline decimating the villages where they live in traditional stilt houses, their livelihoods are declining.

Meanwhile, the Eternal Storm itself was affected by the forces of extreme weather. In 2010, a drought caused by a particularly strong El Niño caused lightning activity to cease for 6 weeks, the longest blackout in 104 years.

Ecologist Erik Quiroga, who is campaigning for the Catatumbo lightning to be designated the world’s first weather phenomenon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, warns: “It is a unique gift and we are in danger of losing it.”

See more photos of Catatumbo lightning by Jonas Piontek here.

Ayun Halliday is the chief primatologist East Village Incas zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and A creative, not famous, activity book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *