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The Maracaibo Beacon

Imagine a place where lightning strikes not once, not twice, but 28 times per minute for nine hours straight. Well, that place exists and it’s where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. Roughly the size of Connecticut, the lake is home to over 20,000 fishermen and gets hit with 250 flashes of lightning per square kilometer, every year. The strikes are typically during dusk, which also happens to be prime fishing time. If you’re wondering whether people get hurt, the answer is yes - you’re three to four times more likely to get struck by lightning at the mouth of the Catatumbo River than in the entire United States. But why is this happening?


A ribbon of air that carries moisture from the Carribean Sea to the southern basin of the lake (called the Maracaibo Basin Nocturnal Low-Level Jet) forces the humid air to rapidly ascend. The humid air collides with cold air and creates a static charge. Strong evening winds and the unique shape of the surrounding mountains create the perfect storm. The residents of the lake rely on its waters for food and commerce, which is why scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are studying the phenomenon to better understand how and when these storms form. By predicting patterns in the strikes, local residents can schedule their tasks around low-activity days and save lives in the process.


Dig deeper: The Maracaibo Beacon Image by NASA

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