Catatumbo lightning

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Catatumbo Lightning at night

The Catatumbo Lightning (Spanish: Relámpago del Catatumbo)[1] is an atmospheric phenomenon in Venezuela. It occurs only over the mouth of the Catatumbo River where it empties into Lake Maracaibo. The frequent, powerful flashes of lightning over this relatively small area are said to be the world's largest single generator of tropospheric ozone.[2] Nonetheless, that fact has not been demonstrated.

It originates from a mass of storm clouds at a height of more than 1 km, and occurs during 140 to 260 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.[3]

The Catatumbo Lightning changes its frequency along 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.[4][5][6]

Historical references[edit]

The first written mention of the Catatumbo lightning is supposed to be the epic poem "La Dragontea" (1597) by Lope de Vega, which recounts the defeat of English raider Sir Francis Drake; nonetheless it seems this has been a confusion, as Francis Drake never went to Lake Maracaibo. The Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt once described it as "electrical explosions that are like phosphorescent gleam." Italian geographer Agustin Codazzi described it as a "lightning that seems to arise from the continued Zulia river and its surroundings." The phenomenon became so celebrated that it was depicted in the flag and coat of arms of the state of Zulia, which contains Lake Maracaibo, and mentioned in the state's anthem. This phenomenon has been popularly known for centuries as the Lighthouse of Maracaibo, since it is visible for miles around Lake Maracaibo.[7]

Location and mechanism[edit]

The Catatumbo lightning occurs over and around Lake Maracaibo

The Catatumbo lightning usually develops between the coordinates 8°30′N 71°0′W / 8.500°N 71.000°W / 8.500; -71.000 and 9°45′N 73°0′W / 9.750°N 73.000°W / 9.750; -73.000. 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 creates electrical charges and, as the air masses are destabilized by the mountain ridges, resulting in thunderstorm activity.[4] The phenomenon is characterized by almost continuous lightning, mostly within the clouds, which is produced in a large vertical development of clouds.

Previous studies[edit]

Among the major modern studies there is the one done by Melchor Centeno, who attributes the origin of the thunderstorms to closed wind circulation in the region. Between 1966 and 1970, Andrew Zavrostky investigated the area three times, with assistance from the University of the Andes. He concluded that the lightning has several epicenters in the marshes of Juan Manuel de Aguas National Park, Claras Aguas Negras, and west Lake Maracaibo. In 1991 he suggested that the phenomenon occurred due to cold and warm air currents meeting around the area. The study also speculated that an isolated cause for the lightning might be the presence of uranium in the bedrock.[8]

Between 1997 and 2000 Nelson Falcón and collaborators conducted four studies, and proposed a microphysics model of the Catatumbo Lightning. He identified the methane produced by the swamps and the oil deposits in the area as a major cause of the phenomenon.[9] The methane model is based on symmetry properties of the methane. Different studies[10][11] have indicated that this model does not agree with the observed behaviour of the Catatumbo Lightning, as -for example- it indicates that there must be more lightning in the dry season (January–February), and less in the wet season (April–May and September–October).

A team from the Center for Scientific Modeling at Universidad del Zulia, coordinated by Ángel G. Muñoz, has investigated the impact of different atmospheric variables on the Catatumbo Lightning's daily, seasonal and year-to-year variability,[12] finding relationships with the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, ENSO, the Caribbean Low-Level Jet,[13] and the local winds and Convective Available Potential Energy.[14][15]

Using satellite data, two groups of researchers led by Rachel Albrecht[16][17] and Ricardo Bürgesser[10] have provided detailed analysis about the Catatumbo Lightning's location, timing and number of discharges per square kilometer (density).

Predictability[edit]

Jet de Bajo Nivel de la Cuenca del Lago de Maracaibo

A more recent study[18] has shown that it is possible to forecast lightning in the Lake Maracaibo basin up to a few months in advance, based in the variability of the Lake Maracaibo Low-Level Jet and its interactions with predictable climate modes like ENSO and the Caribbean Low-Level Jet. The study also shows that the forecast skill is significantly higher when an index based on a combination of winds and Convective Available Potential Energy is used. The index seems to capture well the compound effect of multiple climate drivers.

In order to calibrate physical and statistical models to make their forecasts, the team has been acquiring data with tethered balloons and micro-weather stations tied to the ballon's line.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Fogonazos: Catatumbo, the everlasting storm". Fogonazos.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  2. ^ "Fire in the Sky". Retrieved 2008-08-16. 
  3. ^ "Catatumbo Lightning - Congo". Real Travel. Archived from the original on 2011-07-01. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  4. ^ a b "Catatumbo Lightning". Wondermondo. 
  5. ^ Carroll, Rory (5 March 2010). "Drought extinguishes Venezuela's lightning phenomenon". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  6. ^ Guttman, Matt; Robert Rudman. "Venezuela's Mysterious Catatumbo Lightning Phenomenon Vanishes for Months, Then Reappears". ABC News. Retrieved 3 January 2013. 
  7. ^ "Lightning Up, 4 Feb 2010". Blogs.ngm.com. 2002-10-17. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040050. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  8. ^ "Una vida consagrada a los números" (PDF). 
  9. ^ "Phenomena - A science salon hosted by National Geographic Magazine". Blogs.ngm.com. 2002-10-17. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040050. Retrieved 2013-02-08. 
  10. ^ a b Bürgesser, R. E.; Nicora, M. G.; Ávila, E. E. (2012). "Characterization of the lightning activity of "Relámpago del Catatumbo". Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics 77: 241–247. doi:10.1016/j.jastp.2012.01.013. 
  11. ^ Muñoz, Á.G.; Díaz-Lobatón, J.; Chourio, X.; Stock, J. (2016). "Seasonal prediction of lightning activity in North Western Venezuela: Large-scale versus local drivers". Atmospheric Research. 172–173: 147–162. doi:10.1016/j.atmosres.2015.12.018. 
  12. ^ Muñoz, Á.G., Díaz-Lobatón, J., 2011: "The Catatumbo Lightnings: A review", Memoirs of the XIV International Conference on Atmospheric Electricity. Brazil.
  13. ^ Torrealba, E.; Amador, J. (2010). "La corriente en chorro de bajo nivel sobre los Llanos Venezolanos de Sur América". Revista de Climatología 10: 1–20. 
  14. ^ Muñoz, Á.G., Díaz-Lobatón, J., 2012: Los Relámpagos del Catatumbo y el Flujo Energético Medio en la Cuenca del Lago de Maracaibo. Reporte público CMC-GEO-DDI-02-2011. Centro de Modelado Científico. Universidad del Zulia. 12 p. En http://cmc.org.ve/portal/archivo.php?archivo=241
  15. ^ Muñoz, Á.G., Núñez, A., Chourio, X., Díaz-Lobatón, J., Márquez, R., Moretto, P., Juárez, M., Casanova, V., Quintero, A., Zurita, D., Colmenares, V., Vargas, L., Salcedo, M.L., Padrón, R., Contreras, L., Parra, H., Vaughan, C., Smith, D., 2015: Reporte Final de la Expedición Catatumbo: Abril 2015. Reporte Público CMC-01-2015. Centro de Modelado Científico (CMC). Universidad del Zulia. 20 p. doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.1351.0566
  16. ^ Albrecht, R., et al., 2011. The 13 years of TRMM Lightning Imaging Sensor: from individual flash characteristics to decadal tendencies. XIV Int. Conf. Atmos. Elec., Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
  17. ^ Albrecht, R. I.; Goodman, S. J.; Buechler, D. E.; Blakeslee, R. J.; Christian, H. J.; Albrecht, R. I.; Christian, H. J. (2016). "Where are the lightning hotspots on Earth?". Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00193.1. 
  18. ^ Muñoz, Á.G.; Díaz-Lobatón, J.; Chourio, X.; Stock, J. (2016). "Seasonal prediction of lightning activity in North Western Venezuela: Large-scale versus local drivers". Atmospheric Research. 172–173: 147–162. doi:10.1016/j.atmosres.2015.12.018. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 9°20′39″N 71°42′38″W / 9.34417°N 71.71056°W / 9.34417; -71.71056