CARACAS – The “Catatumbo Lightning,” a semi-permanent electrical storm that can be seen nearly half the year, stymied English sea captain Sir Francis Drake’s planned nighttime attack in 1595 on the Spanish colonial city of Maracaibo, Venezuelan environmentalist Erik Quiroga said on Friday.
The episode is recounted in Spanish Golden Age poet Lope de Vega’s “La Dragontea,” which tells how the regular flashes of lightning allowed a watchman to spot Drake’s ships. The lookout alerted a military garrison, which managed to repel the nighttime attack.
Quiroga told Efe that Lope de Vega learned of the event from a document known as “Accounts of the High Court of Justice in Panama” and described it in Canto IV, octaves 44-46 of his history in verse of Drake’s last expedition and death.
The Catatumbo Lightning, whose flashes are visible up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) away, has been used for centuries as a natural lighthouse by sailors arriving at the Gulf of Venezuela, earning it the nickname “Faro de Maracaibo,” or Maracaibo Beacon.
The environmentalist noted that it is a unique atmospheric phenomenon that occurs in the western portion of Lake Maracaibo in northwestern Venezuela, in an area where the Catatumbo River flows into the large brackish bay.
According to meteorological studies by the Venezuelan air force, the Catatumbo cloud-to-cloud lightning forms a voltage arc more than 5 km (3 miles) high that occurs 140 to 160 times a year, producing an average of 280 lighting flashes per minute over a period of seven hours in two separate cycles.
Each of the discharges, according to Quiroga, contains enough electricity to light 100 million bulbs, meaning that 10 minutes of activity is enough to light all the bulbs in South America.
In addition, according to the Venezuelan environmentalist, “there are signs that the Catatumbo Lightning is the world’s largest single generator of ozone from cloud-to-cloud electrical storms.”
The phenomenon is the result of a permanent low pressure system in the area as well as the confluence of cold air blowing in from the Andes and ionized methane from decaying vegetable matter ascending into the clouds and feeding the storms.
Quiroga said that whereas cloud-to-land electrical charges can range in intensity from 10,000-50,000 amps, cloud-to-cloud lightning, like that of Catatumbo, has an intensity of between 100,000 and 300,000 amps,
According to NASA, a total of 100 electrical discharges occur worldwide per second, which means that those in the Catatumbo region account for 1 percent of the total.
Quiroga is the promoter of the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, observed on Sept. 16, an initiative approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1995 at the request of Venezuela and other developing countries. EFE