The world’s greatest natural sound and light show occurs over the Catatumbo River in Venezuela, a 15 hour drive from Bogota, Columbia. For centuries, a storm unleashing over 40,000 bolts of lightning has ripped across the night sky at exactly the same spot over Lake Maracaibo. This has occurred repeatedly for as many as 160 nights a year, lasting up to 10 hours a night.
The people of northwestern Venezuela call the phenomenon ‘rib a-ba’, which means ‘river of fire in the sky’. It is also known as ‘Relámpago del Catatumbo’, the ‘everlasting storm’. It generates 1.2 million lightning strikes a year (the highest in the world), visible from almost 250 miles away. For centuries, the ‘Beacon of Maracaibo’ has guided sailors and fishermen at night. It is now a popular tourist attraction in the region.
Photo: The chemical engineer
According to Alan Highton, a tour operator and photographer who lives part-time on the lake, with the locals, “They have no idea that this lightning flashing around all night is something unique. It doesn’t occur anywhere else in the world.” He said that for generations, the villagers never paid much attention to the lightning; for them it is a part of normal life. They even find it funny when visitors arrive, spending all night on the water to watch the extraordinary display of light.
The bolts of lightning illuminate the night sky with a combination of brilliant colors. The difference in colors depends on the different kinds of atoms in the air. In dry air, the lightning looks white because there are few strong visible rays of light. But if the air contains moisture, the hydrogen atoms create a strong red line, causing the lightning to appear purple at night.
Photo: Joe Galindo
‘Rib a-ba’ has no real scientific explanation – no one knows exactly why it occurs. But over the years, people have formed their own theories. Some attribute it to the high winds that sweep across the lake, forming clouds when they meet the Andean mountains. Others believe that the boggy marshes releasing methane gas are responsible. The village elder, however, thinks that when the sun sets, “the spirit of Catatumbo lights up the night sky.”
Highton offered his own theory: “My opinion is there is a very intense low pressure in this entire basin. As night falls and this causes these towering clouds in several different places, you can get six or seven lightning storms around you at the same time.” A few scientists believe that the everlasting storm is the single biggest generator of tropospheric ozone on Earth.
Photo: Cereal Monogomy
What’s even more mysterious is that the phenomenon sometimes stops without warning for months at a time. The last time this happened was in January 2010 – its longest disappearance in 104 years. It had the locals worried, but the storm resumed its regular schedule six weeks later. “We did realize the lightning stopped,” said the village elder. “To us, it was a mysterious thing and we do not have the information to say exactly why.” Something similar had happened way back in 1906, after a huge earthquake off the coast of Columbia and Ecuador caused a tsunami.
Again, there are many theories that attempt to explain the storm’s sudden disappearances. Some suspect that it was a result of a shift from El Nino (unusually warm ocean temperatures) to La Nina (the opposite) in the Pacific Ocean. Others believe that it is connected to bizarre weather changes that have been occurring all over the world. Some scientists also blame the severe drought that El Nino had caused across Venezuela.
Losing the ‘rib a-ba’, even for a few months, is a symbolic blow to the indigenous people. It is steeped into local legends and culture, and is a proud symbol of the people of Venezuela. In 1595, the storm forced English explorer Sir Francis Drake to abandon a sneak attack on the city of Maracaibo. The lightning had betrayed his ships to the Spanish garrison. The storm is referenced in the epic poem ‘La Dragontea’ that tells the story of Sir Francis Drake’s last expedition. It is also included in the anthem of the state of Zulia, home to Lake Maracaibo.