Lightning cracks through a deep purple sky over Catatumbo.
Forks of electricity lacerate the night sky, and a few seconds later thunder peals through the air. Most who witness this exhibition of nature’s might are left awestruck, and yet in this remote corner of South America such electric displays occur as a matter of course when the sun has gone down. Here, darkness rarely lasts long.
Alan Highton is a brave man, and his nickname, “The Lightning Man”, gives you some idea why. Highton is a photographer who specializes in taking pictures of electrical storms. In fact, he claims to have witnessed more lightning than anyone else in the world, and given the area where he spends much of his time, we’ve every reason to take his word for it.
Lightning forks down like the branches of a tree.
Most of us are lucky enough to witness a few good lightning storms a year. Yet here in Venezuela’s Catatumbo Delta, the sky lights up around 260 nights a year, according to some sources – 300, according to Highton – and for up to ten hours at a stretch. Close to 300 lightning bolts are also produced each hour. And all this in precisely the same area. Perfect if you’re a photographer who wants to capture images of spectacular lightning storms. Bewildering and slightly ominous for less intrepid visitors to the region.
Lightning races from cloud to cloud amidst a beautiful mauve sky.
Lightning of course looks amazing, but it is also a deadly force of nature. “The storm often engulfs the villages and becomes dangerous,” Highton reveals. “The lightning rod on my camp is hit regularly.” Such frequent strikes in one locality sound like a menacing prospect to us.
Lightning strikes kill an estimated 24,000 people each year, injuring a further 240,000. With such statistics in mind, we wondered whether Highton had himself ever had any close encounters. “With my tripod, I’ve had lightning hit 50 meters away,” he told us. “I can only pray that luck will be with me in years to come.”
Not all lightning makes it down to earth.
Nobody is certain why there is so much lightning in Catatumbo. One theory is that it may be because of the wall of mountains that surrounds the area. It is suggested that when the warm winds of the Caribbean spill into the bowl created by these peaks, known as the Maracaibo Basin, they run into the much cooler winds flowing down from the Andes. The collision of the two air currents creates the perfect conditions for a thunderstorm – especially when you add the moisture evaporating from the basin’s Maracaibo Lake into the mix.
A spectator enjoys the show.
Yet this combination of air currents of contrasting temperatures and water evaporated by the sun may not be the sole cause of the constant lightning in Catatumbo. The Maracaibo Basin also lies on top of a massive oil field, and with that oil comes methane. It is thought that the methane bubbling up through the lake and rising into the air may provide a little extra kick – increased conductivity – to help create the high-frequency lightning storms.
Dark black rain clouds ominously follow the lightning.
However, not everyone views this heady mix as the reason behind Catatumbo’s lightning storms; some see matters more simply. “My own opinion is [that] there is a very intense low pressure in this entire basin,” Highton has said. “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.”
In this shot, the sky is illuminated, becoming a beautiful electric blue.
Whatever the origin, everyone agrees that Catatumbo’s storms produce a lot of lightning. As Highton told us, “There is one spot, 20 kilometers north of Ologa, which receives over 200 bolts per square kilometer per year, vastly surpassing the Congo in Africa, known previously as the lightning hotspot with 157 bolts per square kilometer per year.”
With so many lightning displays, it must be difficult to choose where to look.
We were curious as to how Highton, who is also a tour guide, ended up in this incredible spot. He explained that during his first few years as a guide, from 1983 to 1986, he worked on a farm in the Andes, in the Maracaibo Lake Basin area. “On exploring the foothill rainforests, I heard rumors about a natural reserve on the Maracaibo Lake,” he says. “Sure enough it turned out to be a wonderful world of tropical forest, the largest lake in South America, and stilt villages.”
Even the trees look like they're admiring the scene.
However, the lake and local settlements were not the only attractions of the nature reserve for Highton. “The locals told me about the Catatumbo lightning, so I decided to spend nights out there,” he reveals. “The observation point was still 50 kilometers away, so around 1992 I ventured further towards the epicenter of the strange phenomenon. The village of Ologa is the closest place, and I made camp there in 2008 after 400 trips to Ologa.”
This shot looks like it was taken dangerously close to those lightning bolts.
Highton may have first come to Catatumbo within the last few decades, but the area’s strange weather patterns have been known about for centuries. For one, the lightning is mentioned in indigenous lore, while the first written reference appears in the work of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega in 1597. Vega’s poem “La Dragontea” recounts how Sir Francis Drake was foiled in his attempt to take the city of Maracaibo by stealth when the lightning exposed his ships to the Spanish.
A bolt bursts out of a cloud in stunning fashion.
Hundreds of years later, in 1823, the lightning was once again credited for the failure of a military force. This time, it was the Spanish themselves who lost – to local fighters during the Venezuelan War of Independence, whose ships the lightning is said to have guided. No wonder a lightning bolt features on the state flag, as well as in its anthem. In spite of this, however, Highton says generations of villagers simply took the lightning for granted – until they noticed outsiders visiting to spend whole nights gazing at its spectacular displays.
Two lightning strikes light up the sky, each one reflected in the lake.
The lightning recently made international news when, in January 2010, for the first time in living memory, it stopped. There was a furore as people tried to deduce the cause, and whether the storms that had been sizzling over Catatumbo for hundreds of years were gone for good. Fortunately, it turned out to be a temporary lapse, and the lightning flashes resumed a few months later. Droughts as a result of El Nino were put forward as possible culprits for the pause in the lightning storms. However, since no one can say for sure how the storms are caused in the first place, why they stopped can’t be certain either.
The low cloud in this picture is dwarfed by the lightning around it.
Ángel Muñoz, a scientist who heads a team studying the Catatumbo lightning, says that it is actually quite normal for the lightning to subside during January and February, when there is less rainfall. He also points out that the storms have in fact become more, not less, intense over the past ten years or so. Although Muñoz can’t say for sure, he suspects that this increase may be a result of oil drilling in the lake, which is releasing more methane into the air.
Lightning strikes in the distance behind this hut on the lake.
According to Highton, there are many myths surrounding the Catatumbo lightning. For one, he says, “it’s not silent,” as some people have suggested; no, it is accompanied by thunder, like all lightning. And, despite what some people believe, “it does not repair the ozone layer.” Indeed, Highton was visited by a BBC film crew who made a documentary exploring this very topic.
A rare, peaceful, lightning-free moment on the lake
Another way Highton reckons people are often mistaken about the Catatumbo lightning is the way they underestimate the size of the area it affects. “It’s not a small area,” confirms the photographer and guide. “The phenomenon covers an area of 5,000 square kilometers.” Not small at all, then!
Huts on the Catatumbo River are lit up in an awesome display of nature's power.
We asked Highton if he’d seen much of an environmental impact from tourists visiting the Catatumbo area to see the lightning over the years. “For the moment, I’m the only one with any significant tour activity, and I make sure people behave both socially and environmentally,” he replied. “For the moment the only impact is good.”
Grey storm clouds gather over the lake with lightning forming in their midst.
“Our work at Ologa goes beyond tourism,” Highton says of his tour company, Cocolight, in conclusion. “We provide needed food supplies to the inhabitants and promote nature conservation.” And that’s one practice it’s difficult to argue with.
Thank you to Alan Highton for sharing his ‘striking’ photographs of the Catatumbo lightning with us, and for offering an insight into the life of a Lightning Man.