Venezuela's Neverending Thunderstorm

Sick of climate change? This South American thunderstorm is eternal!

Catatumbo Lightning
Flickr user derekskey (via Creative Commons)

It's difficult to ignore the weather these day, whether you're a climate change skeptic, a committed believer to the dangers of global warming or simply someone who's googled "never ending lightning" and are wondering what all the fuss is about it. From polar vortices, to hurricanes that strike New York City in autumn, to droughts that never seem to end, no one in the world truly seems to know what's happening with the weather.

Well, unless you happen to live in Venezuela – specifically, the part of Venezuela where the Catatumbo River empties into Lake Maracaibo. Here, you'll find a phenomenon known as the Catatumbo Lightning.

What is the Catatumbo Lightning?

Also sometimes referred to as Venezuela's "eternal thunderstorm," the Catatumbo Lightning doesn't actually fire nonstop, but its has, for at least a few centuries, occurred around 150 times per year, sometimes lasting as long as 10 hours per day, with as many as 300 lightning strikes per hour. I'm no statistician, but I imagine that makes your likelihood of getting struck by lightning slightly higher here than most other places in the world!

Scientists believe the storm, which occurs approximately three miles above the surface of the water, is caused by a perfect storm (punny, right?) of cold and warm air currents that occurs exactly where the lightning forms.

More recently, researchers have come to consensus about the impact of methane on the fueling of the storm. Specifically, a combination of the large regional oil deposits, as well as prevalent swampland, which emits the gas in large quantities, reinforcing the idea that Catatumbo Lightning is, in fact, never ending lightning.

Is the Catatumbo Lightning Actually Eternal?

Before you go booking your flights to Venezuela, you should know that the Catatumbo Lightning is not only not eternal, but its tenure above the Catatumbo River Delta has not been eternally unbroken. Rather, during the first four months of 2010, lightning activity ceased completely, presumably due to drought that overtook the region.

It's also important to note that even if you're lucky enough to visit the Catatumbo Lightning when it is in a period of high activity, the lightning starts at a different time each day and is, not surprisingly, most spectacular at night. You'll need to keep these items in mind when planning your trip to see Venezuela's eternal (or maybe not so eternal!) thunderstorm.

Catatumbo Lightning in Popular Culture

Regardless of whether Venezuela's eternal storm lasts for the rest of eternity, it's already made a significant impact on the world. The dialogue the Catatumbo Lightning has generated within the scientific community notwithstanding, it's been mentioned in literature as far back as the late 16th century, when Spanish poet Lope de Vega used it as the backdrop for his seminal war epic, "La Dragontea."

How to See the Catatumbo Lightning With Your Own Eyes

Independent in Venezuela is extremely difficult in general, even to see iconic sights such as Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall.

On your own, the Catatumbo Lightning from any close distance will be difficult, under even the best circumstances, even if you're already staying in the nearby city of Mérida.

If you want to see the Catatumo Lightning with your own eyes, your best option is to go with a guided tour such as this one, which pairs the spectacle of the lightning with the opportunity to see river dolphins, colorful birds, butterflies and howler monkeys, as well as to explore the authentic Andean villages of La Azulita and Jají, whose magic is more enduring than the so-called "never ending lightning."

Another important reason to consider taking a tour when you visit Venezuela is security. The country is embroiled in its worst economic crisis in years, which is saying a lot for a country that is perpetually on the brink of fiscal collapse.

If you travel alone in Venezuela and you aren't Venezuelan, you are putting your safety at risk! Don't make a decision to save a few dollars now that will cost you something priceless (besides, of course, the illusion of never ending lightning) later.