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Catatumbo lightning: a monstrous meteorological phenomenon capable of generating energy to illuminate 100 million light bulbs

We live days of strong storms in some parts of the planet, with the usual cold drop phenomena at this time of year in areas such as the east of the Iberian Peninsula and more seriously with tropical storm Ida in America. These are more or less cyclical or sudden meteorological events, but there is a meteorological phenomenon that occurs locally, associated with the Lake Maracaibo basin (Venezuela), and that consists of a brutal and continuous barrage of thunder and lightning.

The association to that place is obviously not accidental: as with other meteorological phenomena, the orography of the area is decisive, specifically due to the mountain ranges and the proximity to the Caribbean. Occurs recurrently throughout the year, especially between the months of April and November, and nicknamed it “ozone factory” (although the final destination of the gas may not be what we think).

Continuous electrical discharges and kilometer clouds

Lightning is produced by a large difference in charges between the lower part of the clouds (negative) and the surface and its elements (negative charge), because when it rains there are frictions and collisions between water droplets and odor particles, and that is visibly manifested with a strong glow. This imbalance is solved fast track with electricity transfer (lightning), which usually causes sounds by the phenomena of expansion and contraction of the air (thunder).

Regarding the phenomenon of the Caratumbo lightning (which is referred to in the plural and in the singular according to the criteria considered by each researcher), what is produced is a series of continual electric shock and lightning, between clouds, from cloud to ground and from ground to cloud. As we saw in the video before this paragraph, the discharges come from cumulonimbus, large clouds between 12 and 16 kilometers high, concentrated mainly in the Catatumbo river basin (hence the name).

We said before about the orography because the topography and relief of the Catatumbo area meet for the perfect storm to occur (never better said). Three sides of Lake Maracaibo are surrounded by mountains (including the Perijá Mountains and the Mérida mountain range, the Venezuelan branch of the Andes), leaving a narrow window to the north that opens onto the Gulf of Venezuela. The gulf provides the lake with a well-tempered body of Caribbean water and this adds to the dose of humidity that the tropical heat of the area causes in the lake itself.

In the afternoon, the winds associated with the low-level night current of the Lake Maracaibo basin arrive, when evaporation is greatest, penetrating the surface and being forced by the contrast of cold air masses from the mountains to rise. . A) Yes cumulonimbus form, so that when the water droplets of the humid air mass collide with the ice crystals of the cold air mass, that difference of charges that we described before takes place.

Lake MaracaiboLake Maracaibo

In the same place and 300 days a year

NASA collected in EarthData the information of various investigations on the Catatumbo lightning. As has been seen, the phenomenon occurs between 260 and 300 days a year, reaching 250 lightning strikes per km² (for which they gave it a Guinness record, by the way). Ángel G. Muñoz, a research physicist at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), highlighted that it causes a large number of deaths per year, emphasizing that 25% of the population of Venezuela lives in the area where it usually occurs.

Lightning occurs a while after sunset, when it begins to get dark or with the sky darkened, but according to the researchers it is as if it were daytime due to the continuity of the rays. They talk about about 28 rays per minute for nine hours on Lake Maracaibo. According to NASA, when it happens, enough energy would be generated to illuminate 100 million light bulbs and 10 minutes of the Catatumbo lightning would give to illuminate all of South America, being a phenomenon that has been described for centuries.

According to NASA, when it happens, enough energy would be generated to illuminate 100 million light bulbs and 10 minutes of the Catatumbo lightning would give to illuminate all of South America

The predictable and unpredictable ozone factory

Muñoz and other researchers assume that Catatumbo is the record with the highest density of electrical discharges in the world with more than 200 per km² and year. With this, and taking into account that storms are part of the atmospheric ozone generating mechanisms, the Catatumbo lightning bolts are also called “the ozone factory”.

Of course, it is considered that the ozone that is formed in storms stays in lower layers and does not reach the stratosphereTherefore, it is unlikely that, as the Venezuelan environmentalist Erik Quiroga believes, the Catatumbo lightning will help to regenerate the leaky ozone layer that protects us from the solar ultraviolet rays. A hypothesis that to this day still does not have research to support it.

Storm 02Storm 02

Climate change is not a question of the future: it is also noticeable in the heat, humidity and rains every day

Of course, although the Catatumbo lightning bolts have a certain consistency, their behavior varies each year and during the same year, hence they seek to have a prediction that goes beyond a few days. Muñoz’s team, for example, seeks to obtain a prediction three months in advance, which would be of great help for the population and for the study of the phenomenon.

Storm study models require a huge accumulation of data from many years and satellites are once again a key tool to contribute them, as we have seen for the study of changes in temperature, the magnetic field of our planet or even bioluminescence among many other examples. The hope is that these increasingly better data will be useful to complete the multiple variables that the models require and that in the end we will find one that will serve to predict the phenomenon more in advance.

Images | Jumpstory