Chances are, you’ve seen lightning light up the sky numerous times. Thunderstorms, and the lightning associated with them, are fairly common occurrences, depending on where you live. If you’re in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela, for example, you’ll likely be seeing lightning more days than not. With lightning occurring on average nearly 300 days of the year, it is no surprise that this area has been crowned the lightning capital of the world. This persistent lightning is also known as Cataumbo Lightning. Catatumbo lightning refers to lightning that occurs over the area where the Catatumbo River feeds into Lake Maracaibo. This lightning occurs in the cluster of thunderstorms that form when strong winds move up the mountains surrounding the lake around sunset. These winds cause warm, moist air to rise and lead to the formation of cumulonimbus clouds that produce lightning. This is not an uncommon way for thunderstorms to form, so why is Catatumbo lightning so persistent?
The Maracaibo Basin Nocturnal Low Level Jet is a moving jet of air, located roughly 1 kilometer high, that transports warm, moist air from the Carribean Sea and Lake Maracaibo to the southern basin of Lake Maracaibo. When this jet interacts with the mountains surrounding the lake, the warm, moist air must rise, as there is nowhere else for it to go, causing the thunderstorm formation previously discussed. Since this jet is a consistently occurring nighttime feature in this region, these thunderstorms and subsequent lightning are also a consistent feature. While this low-level jet is a daily occurrence, the determining factor to the occurrence of this lightning phenomenon largely depends on the moisture levels, which change throughout the year. During El Nino, for example, the air is typically drier and this could potentially affect the behavior of this phenomenon. This has prompted research into the effects of moisture on the timing of the occurrence of Catatumbo lightning in an attempt to better predict the seasonal occurrence of this phenomenon.
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©2019 Meteorologist Stephanie Edwards