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Catatumbo Lightning

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Article Information
Category: Weather Weather
Content source: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Content control: SKYbrary About SKYbrary
Tag(s) Weather Phenomena
Catatumbo Lightning, Rayo del Catatumbo, Venezuela, 31 October 2015. Image from wikicommons/Fernando Flores


Catatumbo lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon in Venezuela. It occurs only over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo.

It originates from a mass of storm clouds at a height of more than 1 km, and occurs during 140 to 160 nights a year, 10 hours per day and up to 280 times per hour. It occurs over and around Lake Maracaibo, typically over the bog area formed where the Catatumbo River flows into the lake.

Catatumbo lightning changes its frequency throughout the year, and it is different from year to year. For example, it ceased from January to March 2010, apparently due to drought, temporarily raising fears that it might have been extinguished permanently.

Lightning storms form just off the mouth of the Catatumbo river where it enters Maracaibo lake


Catatumbo lightning usually develops between the coordinates 8°30′N 71°0′W and 9°45′N 73°0′W. The storms (and associated lightning) are likely the result of the winds blowing across the Maracaibo Lake and surrounding swampy plains. These air masses inevitably meet the high mountain ridges of the Andes, the Perijá Mountains (3,750 m), and Mérida's Cordillera, enclosing the plain from three sides. The heat and moisture collected across the plains create electrical charges and, as the air masses are destabilized by the mountain ridges, result in thunderstorm activity. The phenomenon is characterized by almost continuous lightning, mostly within the clouds, which is produced in a large vertical development of clouds. The Lake Maracaibo Basin in North Western Venezuela has the highest annual lightning rate of any place in the world. The lightning produces a great quantity of ozone.

Impact on aviation

Apart from the impact on en-route traffic in the area, certain local airports, including Miguel Urdaneta Fernández Airport can be affected by the storms associated with Catatumbo lightning.

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