Thursday, December 3, 2009
Catatumbo Lightning - a Venezuelan mystery
Anybody who has travelled to the houses on stilts in the south of Lake Maracaibo to witness firsthand the mysterious natural phenomenon known as Catatumbo Lightning, or El Relampago del Catatumbo in Spanish, will understand the awe that these great arcs of thunderless lightning inspire.
The lightning can be seen on an average of 160 nights a year, with the electrical storms lasting up to 10 hours and with up to 280 lightning flashes an hour.
One of the first to pen an account of the phenomenon, and so bring it to the attention of the wider world, was the German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who described the powerful and sustained lightning flashes as "electrical explosions that are like a phosphorescent gleam".
Humboldt referred to the phenomenon as "El Farol de Maracaybo", or "The Lighthouse of Maracaibo", because navigators on the lake are "guided by it as by a lighthouse".
"The distance, greater than 40 leagues, at which the light is observed, has led to the supposition that it might be owing to the effects of a thunderstorm, or of electrical explosions which might daily take place in a pass in the mountains," wrote Humboldt in his famous book "Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America."
While it can be seen from hundreds of miles away, the main area in which Catatumbo Lightning is produced is in the sky over the mouth of the Catatumbo River as it empties into the south of Lake Maracaibo, known in Spanish as Sur del Lago.
Most tourist trips organized from Merida start at the small fishing village of Puerto Concha, on the shores of the Sur del Lago, from where boat trips can be arranged to houses on stilts in the Las Cienagas de Juan Manuel National Park, where the best views are available.
Congo Mirador is a community of some 120 stilt-built shacks reached in two hours by boat from Puerto Concha.
As the documentary suggests, there is still no accepted single cause for the phenomenon, which remains a mystery, although most theories are linked to the atmospheric conditions that result from heavy winds blowing down from the Andes Mountains in Merida, which then collide with ionised gases - specifically the methane created by the decomposition of organic matter in local marshes.
One of the companies offering Catatumbo trips from Merida is