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The most exciting storms are ones accompanied by flashes of lightning. Unfortunately those are rare, unless you are in the vicinity of the Catatumbo River in Northwestern Venezuela, home to the spectacular everlasting 'rib a-ba’, or ‘river of fire' lighting storms.
Here, nature's grandest sound and light show called Relámpago del Catatumbo (the Catumbo lightning) is staged about 160 nights a year for up to 10 hours at a time. And unlike other measly lightning storms that generate maybe one or two flashes, this one sizzles with as many as 280 an hour, or a whopping 1.2 million lightning strikes a year - the highest in the world. Not only that, each one of them discharges with an intensity of between 100,000 to 400,000 amps or enough to power every light bulb in South America. Not surprisingly, they are visible for almost 250 miles, which is why fisherman and sailors often use the Beacon of Maracaibo to guide them across the waters, during dark nights.
What's even more amazing is that the lightning has been occurring above the same spot in the marshland where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo, one of only 17 ancient lakes in the world, for thousands of years.
The best part is that the show is different every night. That's because the color of the lightning varies, depending on the amount moisture in the atmosphere. On dry nights, the lightning appears white because there no droplets of water to act as prisms. Conversely, when the air is laden with moisture, it helps split up the bright light into spectacular red, orange and even purple colors.
Funnily enough, though this phenomenon has been going on for centuries, scientists have still not been able to figure out the reason. Some speculate that the storms are a result of the interaction of the area's unusual topography, wind and heat. Lake Maracaibo is sheltered by the high Andes mountains on three sides. This causes powerful low level warm winds from the Caribbean Sea, to rush in from the one open area. When this hot moist air meets the cold air from the Andes, it condenses, resulting in thunderstorms.
Others however believe that the storms are caused from the methane released by the marshes in the area. The locals simply maintain that this natural phenomenon is the 'spirit of Catatumbo' that lights up the night sky.
Another mystery that boggles the scientific community and locals alike, is why the thunderstorms sometimes disappear for long periods of time. In 2010, the skies over the area did not light up for almost six weeks, the longest disappearance in 104 years. Again there are many theories - Some attribute it to a shift from El Nino to La Nina (cooler than normal water temperatures) in the Pacific Ocean. Others believe that it was caused by climate change. The good news is that the storms came back and have not left for that long a period, since! Now if only someone could figure out how to harness all the free energy that is being released each night!
Resources: odditycentral.com, dailymail.co.uk,icag.com