CATATUMBO

Catatumbo

The Catatumbo lightening phenomena is one of the few remaining unexplained events in the world! How is it that there can be lightening on a frequent basis without thunder or any noise at all? This is the only place in the world where this occurs, and it is still scientifically unexplained!

But this tour includes a lot more! We will pass 4 distinctly different types of habitation-mountain life; life in the steamy planes; life in the fishing villages; and life in a village built on stilts! We will see 4 types of vegetation, of lifestyle, and of environment, culminating in the village of Congo Mirador: an entire village built on the water, of over 1,200 inhabitants!

Furthermore, we will go on safari. We pass down the River Concha and Conchita, observing on the way the vast variety of birdlife, as well as the countless monkeys, iguanas, snakes, etc. What’s more, by night we will return to the river by torchlight to look for snakes, caimans, nocturnal birds and so on!
Located in the Lake of Maracaibo, the largest lake in South America, the Catatumbo area is both a national park of outstanding beauty, an area of vital necessity to those living close by due to its fish production; and an area of mystery and eeriness, with its lit up, silent, nights. And what a better place to observe it from than a house built above the water! Relax to the slapping of the waves as you watch the stunning rays turn the sky all colors of the rainbow!
This tour has everything! A true hidden treasure of Venezuela!

Leaving south out of Merida we pass by 2 famous waterfalls (Las Gonzales and Salto Jají), before entering the village of Jají. We then stop for lunch at the Pirate Caves in La Azulita, and continue into the planes towards Puerto Concha. Leaving the car we commence our boat safari, arriving at our house on stilts in the Lake of Maracaibo. After dinner we return by boat for the night safari, and then relax and wait for the lightening phenomenon. After a night’s sleep, we travel up to the village on stilts – Congo Mirador – and explore the inner folds of the River Catatumbo and River Bravo. After returning back to the port, we take the car on a southerly route via El Vigia and the Coffee museum and back to Merida.

This tour includes:

All meals from lunch day one until lunch day 2

All drinks (non-alcoholic)

Professional bi-lingual guide (English/Spanish)

1 Night accommodation

All Activities, boat ride, etc

To take:

Warm and light clothing (depending on the season)

A torch

Strong shoes

Sufficient batteries for your camera

A journey towards spiritual science

Catatumbo Rainforest, Venezuela

Spirituality and science, may they marry again, as if it were an alchemical wedding?

Helicopter: nobody wants to fly overnight!!!

Lake Maracaibo

Lake Maracaibo is a large brackish lake in Venezuela at 10°39′N 71°36′W / 10.65°N 71.6°W / 10.65; -71.6. It is connected to the Gulf of Venezuela by Tablazo Strait (55km) at the northern end, and fed by numerous rivers, the largest being the Catatumbo. It is commonly considered a lake rather than a bay, and at 13,210 km² it would be the largest lake in South America. The geological record shows that it has been a true lake in the past, and as such is one of the oldest lakes on Earth.

Lake Maracaibo acts as a major shipping route to the ports of Maracaibo and Cabimas. The surrounding Maracaibo Basin contains large reserves of crude oil, making the lake a major profit center for Venezuela.[6] A dredged channel gives oceangoing vessels access to the bay. The General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge (8.7 km long; completed 1962), spanning the bay’s outlet, is one of the longest bridges in the world.

The lake is also the location of Catatumbo lightning.

History

The first known settlements on the bay were those of the Goajiros, who still are present in large numbers, but have re-settled in the western boundary area with Colombia. The first European to discover the bay was Alonso de Ojeda on August 24, 1499, on a voyage with Amerigo Vespucci (the same one for which the American continents were named). Legend has it that upon entering the lake, they found groups of indigenous huts, built over stilts on water (“palafitos” in Spanish), and interconnected by boardwalks on stilts, with each other and with the lake shore. This brought to the explorers the image of Venice, and the land discovered was given the name of “Venezuela”, which means “Little Venice” in Spanish. (Example of palafitos can still be found in “Santa Rosa”, an area in the city of Maracaibo.)

The port town of Maracaibo was founded in 1529 on the western side. In July 1823, the bay was the site of the Battle of Lake Maracaibo, an important battle in the Venezuelan War of Independence. Oil production began in the surrounding basin in 1914, with wells drilled by Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij, a predecessor of Royal Dutch Shell.

On April 6, 1964, at 11:45 pm, the supertanker Esso Maracaibo, loaded with 236,000 barrels of crude oil, suffered a major electrical failure, so that control of steering was lost. Thus it collided with pier #31 of the two-year-old General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge across the mouth of the lake. A 259 metre section of the bridge roadway fell into the water with a portion coming to rest across the tanker just a few feet from the ship’s superstructure. Fortunately, no oil spill occurred, and there were no deaths or serious injuries on the tanker, but seven motorists and passengers in vehicles crossing the bridge were killed.

Islands

Due to its large extension and its geological conformation some Islands are of considerable size and populated with fisherman, commercial and recreational purposes. The majority of this islands are located in the Almirante Padilla municipality, including:

Fishing

As recently as 2000, Lake Maracaibo supported 20,000 fishermen.

Settlements

Several settlements built out on stilts over the lake – palafitos – still exist in the south and south-west, notably at Lagunetas.

Subsiding ground

Due to the massive volume of oil removed in the Maracaibo Basin, some oil-producing areas adjacent to Lake Maracaibo have sunk, changing the geography of the region. In response, the Venezuelan government has been forced to build an earthen dike to protect sub-sea-level areas like Tía Juana, Lagunillas, and Bachaquero from encroachment by the waters. Cumulative subsidence is as much as 5 meters, and it continues at a rate of up to 20 cm/yr at some locations inland and typically 5 cm/yr along the coast. Many consider the dike to be a disaster in waiting, with the potential of an earthquake causing soil liquefaction and submerging a large population. A program of mitigative measures to address the seismic risk was begun in 1988. Ongoing maintenance and improvements to the dike will be needed, as it continues to subside by as much as 7 cm per year.

Duckweed infestation

As of June 18, 2004, a large portion (18%) of the surface of Lake Maracaibo is covered by duckweed specifically Lemna. Although efforts to remove the plant have been underway, the plant – which can double its size every 48 hours – covers over 130 million cubic metres of the lake. The only way to remove the weed is to pull it out of the lake physically – no chemical or biological method has been found to treat the weed. The government has been spending $2 million monthly to clean the lake, and the state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. has created a $750 million cleanup fund. Current efforts are barely keeping up with the growth of the plant. The removal process has proven to be particularly difficult in the center of the lake where a specially equipped ship may be needed to pull the weed off the lake.

There is some mystery as to how the plant came to reside in the waters of Lake Maracaibo. According to scientists from the Institute for the Conservation of Lake Maracaibo (ICLAM), one of the government organizations charged with the care of Lake Maracaibo, the weed is probably native to the lake, but few studies have been conducted to confirm that suspicion. The prodigious growth of the freshwater marine plant is likely a self-purification mechanism. Others disagree, believing the type of duckweed to be native to Florida and Texas and thus the infestation is a result of its having been transported by ship.

Another point of uncertainty is why the scale of the outbreak is so great. Maracaibo is fed by both salt water from the Caribbean and fresh water from numerous rivers. The lighter fresh water floats on top of the heavier salt water, which forms a dense layer on the bottom. This set-up traps nutrients that have settled on the floor of the lake. In the spring of 2004, heavy rains disrupted the usual pattern. The sudden influx of fresh water stirred the layers, allowing nutrients to float to the top, where duckweed and other plants reside. These nutrients may have triggered the duckweed’s rapid expansion. Additional sources of nutrients include untreated sewage discharge and fertilizers and other industrial waste flowing into the lake through rivers (97 percent of the country’s raw sewage is discharged without treatment into the environment). Furthermore, chemicals used to clean up oil spills may have contributed to the duckweed problem. The lake basin hosts Venezuela’s largest oil fields, and high concentrations of biodegradable dispersants that contain phosphates and polyaspartic acid – a chemical used to increase nutrient uptake in crops – have been found, a veritable feast for the plants. Scientists at ICLAM disagree, saying that dispersants have been banned from the lake for years and, even if they were present, could not contain enough nutrients to support the current duckweed population.

Duckweed is not toxic to fish, but some scientists are concerned that it could suck oxygen out of the lake as it decays, asphyxiating large numbers of fish. Though officials say the weed hasn’t harmed fish yet, it is putting a dent in the local fishing industry. The plant clogs the motors of small boats, making it impossible for fishers to launch their vessels. Duckweed further threatens the local ecosystem by choking out other plants as it shades large portions of the lake. In certain conditions, the weed may concentrate heavy metals and bacteria such as salmonella and Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera. Despite these problems, the weed may yet have some positive use; duckweed can be treated to be fed to poultry or to make paper.

As of 2007 the duckweed problem continues.

Motilone Barí

The Motilone, or Bari are names of a Native American ethnic group, part of the Chibcha family, remnants of the Tairona Culture concentrated in northeastern Colombia and western Venezuela in the Catatumbo River basin, in the Colombian Department of Northern Santander in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. They have been the subject of the French ethnologist Robert Jaulin‘s attention, who redefined the concept of ethnocide by observing their particular fate.

Name

Although the Bari and Yukpa peoples are commonly referred to as “Motilones,” this is not how they refer to themselves. “Motilones” means “shaved heads” in Spanish, and is how Spanish-speaking Colombians refer to them.

History

In the 1500s, Alonso de Ojeda of Spain sailed to Colombia and discovered the Maricaibo Basin. The Spaniards believed that the area’s frequent lightning strikes turned stone into gold, and so they began settling the region extensively. The Motilones fought the Spaniards back from their territory, defeating five royal expeditions sent to pacify the Indians. It was the Spaniards who first named the Barí “Motilones,” or “people of the short hair.”

Later, a German company directed by Ambrosio Alfinger looted a large amount of gold from Caribe Indians on the western coast of South America, and attempted to transport the gold over the Bobalí Mountains. Motilones ambushed and destroyed the expedition, and the gold was lost, never to be found again. Motilone warriors harassed the troops of Simón Bolívar in the 1800s as he led them over the Orinoco plains and the Andes Mountains.

In the 1900s, oil was discovered in Motilone territory, and as oil companies moved in, Their land has been subjected to oil drilling from 1913-1926 and from 1996-2001.

The first peaceful contact that was made with the Bari was by Roberto Lizarralde in 1960. Lizarralde conducted research among the Bari for 44 years and his research was carried on by his son, Manuel Lizarralde. The focus of their research has been on the ethnobotany of the Bari, who possess a vast knowledge of the biodiversity in Amazonia and use 80% of the plants around them.

[There needs to be mentioned Bruce Olson (“Bruchko”) and his 30 year missionary work of Medical clinics, and literacy programs for the Gospel of Jesus Christ]. He began living with the Bari in 1962, and became the blood brother of a son’s chieftain. He’s considered the most influential cause behind the “Motilone Miracle”, of indigenously ran schools, literacy programs, medical clinics, as well as a concerted effort of the Motilone Bari to reach out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ to 18 other surrounding tribes.

Since the initial contact in 1650, Bari land has been reduced to 7% of its original mass and the Bari have shifted their production to the gardening of cash crops in order to acquire Western goods which are becoming increasingly integrated into their culture.

Economy

The Motilone people’s chief economic activity is the growing of Theobroma cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made. They export the cacao and use the proceeds to help maintain their network of schools, community centers, and health clinics, all started after large numbers of the Motilone’s (notably the chieftan, “Bobby”) received the Gospel. A transformation occurred in Motionlone Bari culture; and as a result, clinics and schools were started in the Bari culture.

Language

The Motilone speak the Barí language, part of the Chibchan linguistic family.

Beliefs

Until the 1960s, the Motilone had little contact with the outside world. They believed in the existence of a single God, and that evil spirits existed in the world. But they believed that God had rejected them for deceiving Him. A man named Sacamaydodji had come to them, claiming to be a prophet, saying that he could take them over the horizon to a better land. They left God and followed him, but eventually came to believe that Sacamaydodji had been a false prophet, and regretted walking away from God. Still, they had a prophecy that a tall man with yellow hair would come with a banana stalk, and that God would come out of the banana stalk.

In 1962, a Scandinavian-American teenager named Bruce Olson came to live with the Motilone, learning their language and culture. Initially, some of the Motilone believed that Olson might be the tall man with yellow hair from the prophecy, but as he did not carry a banana stalk, they soon abandoned that belief. One day in 1965, Olson’s pact-brother Bobarishora cut open a banana stalk, and the leaves inside splayed out, like the pages of a book. Olson pointed to his Bible and said, “This is God’s banana stalk!” Olson recounted a Bari legend he had learned, about a Motilone man wanting to help a group of ants build a good home, but because he was so big and different, the ants scattered in fear. Miraculously, the man was transformed into an ant, and as an ant, he was able to show the other ants how to improve their home. Olson used that story to describe how God became incarnate in Jesus, and “walked our trail.” Olson described the death of Jesus, and his resurrection, and told the Motilone that the Bible tells the story of Jesus.

Many nights later, Bobarishora asked Olson how he could walk on Jesus’ trail. Olson had difficulty explaining “faith” in the Motilone language. Olson reminded Bobarishora of one of his first celebrations with the tribe, when he was afraid to climb into one of the high-strung hammocks loved by the Motilone, to swing free and sing songs with the tribe. He had wanted to keep one foot on the ground, but Bobarishora had told him that he could only sing if he was fully suspended in the hammock. Olson said, “That is how it is when you follow Jesus, Bobby. No man can tell you how to walk His trail. Only Jesus can. But to find out you have to tie your hammock strings into Him and be suspended in God.” Two days later, Bobarishora told Olson, “Bruchko, I’ve tied my hammock strings into Jesus. Now I speak a new language.” For the Motilone, “language” is equivalent to life. Bobarishora spoke of having a new life, suspended in Jesus.

Months later, at the tribe’s Festival of the Arrows, a time of pact-making and story-telling, Bobarishora was challenged to a singing competition by an older chief named Adjibacbayra. Climbing into a single hammock, the two men sang alternating lines, and Bobarishora sang about how the Motilones had been deceived by Sacamaydodji, but that Jesus had walked the Motilones’ trail to lead them back to God. The song lasted over ten hours, but the effect was startling. The entire tribe accepted the song about Jesus. Soon, the song had spread to other Motilone tribes, at other Festival of Arrows. Within months, virtually the entire Motilone people had accepted a contextualized version of Christianity.

Current estimates are that 70% of the Motilone people are now Christians.

Catatumbo, the everlasting storm

The Catatumbo River (Spanish: Río Catatumbo) is a river rising in northern Colombia, flowing into Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. The Catatumbo River is approximately 210 miles (338 km) long. It forms a part of the international boundary between the two countries.

The mysterious “Relámpago del Catatumbo” (Catatumbo lightning) is a unique natural phenomenon in the world. Located on the mouth of the Catatumbo river at Lake Maracaibo (Venezuela), the phenomenon is a cloud-to-cloud lightning that forms a voltage arc more than five kilometre high during 140 to 160 nights a year, 10 hours a night, and as many as 280 times an hour.

This almost permanent storm occurs over the marshlands where the Catatumbo River feeds into Lake Maracaibo and it is considered the greatest single generator of ozone in the planet, judging from the intensity of the cloud-to-cloud discharge and great frequency. The area sees an estimated 1,176,000 electrical discharges per year, with an intensity of up to 400,000 amperes, and visible up to 400 km away. This is the reason why the storm is also known as the Maracaibo Beacon as light has been used for navigation by ships for ages.

Fire in the Sky

26.11.2007 By Stephen Davenport

While the weather is relatively quiet here in the UK, it is perhaps worth reflecting on lively meteorological phenomena elsewhere.

Let’s take a look at lightning, for instance. It is estimated that there are three million lightning strikes every day around the world – or 30 per second. The greatest frequency is in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the globe, and topping the list are: El Bagre, in Colombia (270 days per year with lightning); Tororo, in Uganda (251 days); and Bogor, in Java, Indonesia (223 days). Typically, these storms last for about two hours per day, with almost continual cloud-to-ground lightning and thunder.

The most extraordinary electrical storm, however, is found in Venezuela, at the mouth of the Catatumbo river where it empties into Lake Maracaibo. This is the “Relámpago del Catatumbo” (“Catatumbo Lightning”). It can be seen during 140 to 160 nights of the year for as long as 10 hours per night and is comprised almost exclusively of eerily silent cloud-to-cloud lightning, arcing through the atmosphere at altitudes of five kilometres or more.

The sky is illuminated by these flashes as often as 280 times per hour, amounting to over one million electrical discharges per year with an intensity of 100,000 to 400,000 amps each. The flashes are visible up to 40 kilometres away and have been used as a natural lighthouse for centuries; which is why this semi-permanent storm is also known as the “Faro de Maracaibo”, or “Maracaibo Beacon”.

The confluence of cold winds pouring from the Andes and hot, humid air rising from Maracaibo’s marshlands is thought to be a major contributory factor to this unique display. Ionised gases ascend from the marshes, particularly methane from decaying vegetable matter. These feed the storms and produce spectacular displays of glowing red, orange, yellow and white incandescence.

However, Angel Muñoz of the University of Zulia believes that a substance called kerogen (a mixture of organic compounds found in sedimentary rocks) might also play a rôle.

“The substrata of the lake are rich in petroleum deposits,” he says, “and share with the river marshes the same geological history. The accumulation of methane in the atmosphere could be favoured by leaks of this gas through fissures in the rocky mantle and into the marshes and lagoons.”

This would at least explain the increase in the frequency and intensity of the Relámpago after nearby earthquakes, and its occasional disappearance.

Whatever the reason, we can thank this violent but beautiful spectacle for helping to replenish ozone levels in the upper troposphere. It is thought to be the single greatest generator of ozone in the world, and there are calls for the region to be made a UNESCO protected zone.

Each lightning bolt, it is said, could light all the bulbs in South America. Now, if only we could find a way to harness all that power.

From a Blog

Escaping the city 5 of us went off on a two day trip to see the Catatumbo lightning phenomenon. No-one really knows what causes it even though experts have been there to study it, but basically there are huge lightning storms most nights around and across the Maracaibo Lake.

On the way to our overnight camp by river we saw lots of wildlife, egrets, herons, vultures, hummingbirds and iguanas and we even saw fresh-water dolphins in the lake and we stopped off a sugar cane factory to see the old men still producing sugar by hand.

The guys on the other boat with all our supplies, amused themselves by pretending to be terrorists and trying to shoot us with flip-flops! Our overnight stop was the village of Congo – a village actually on the lake (it even has a Plaza Bolivar built on stilts and a pool hall!) and we were visited by a few of the local children paddling over in all sorts of contraptions – washing up bowls, tubs etc.

We got in an early night in our hammocks in preparation for being woken up around midnight to see the lightning show and it did not disappoint. It was estimated to have been around 20,000 flashes of lightning just that night and it is totally amazing to see. Sheet lightning, Fork lightning and lightning cross sideways across the sky.

There is rarely any thunder as it is so far in the clouds so it is totally surreal and peaceful watching it. Unfortunately I did not manage to get any photos which could do it any justice and it is so hard to describe how magical it is.

On our way back to Merida we got to spot the Morpho Retina Hightoni butterfly, a species that our guide Alan had discovered himself. We also checked out a coffee plantation and wandered tentatively across a now closed rickedy bridge to see the torrential river after the night´s rain.

The Catatumbo Lightning

The Catatumbo Lightning (Spanish Relámpago del Catatumbo) is an atmospheric phenomenon in Venezuela. It occurs strictly in an area located 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 considered by some to be the world’s largest single generator of tropospheric ozone. It originates from a mass of storm clouds that create a voltaic arc at more than 5 km of height, during 140 to 160 nights a year, 10 hours per day and up to 280 times per hour. It occurs over and around Lake Maracaibo, typically over a bog area that forms where the Catatumbo River flows into the Venezuelan lake.

After appearing continually for centuries, the lightning had not been seen since January 2010, apparently due to a drought, raising fears that it may have been extinguished permanently. In April of 2010,the Catatumbo Lightning reappeared.

Likely causes

The storms (and associated lightning), are likely the result of the heavy winds blowing away from the Andes Mountains, which then collide with ionised gases – specifically the methane created by the decomposition of organic matter in the marshes. Being lighter than the incoming air, the gas rises up into the cloud layer, creating an electrical charge and a subsequent discharge which is seen as lightning.

The phenomenon is characterized by almost continuous lightning, which is produced in a large vertical development of clouds that form large electric arcs between 2 and 10 km in height (or more). The lightning is seen most often in the afternoons, when evaporation is greatest. The Perijá mountains (3,750m), and Mérida’s Cordillera, which constitute a branch of the Venezuelan Andes, serve as an enclosing and concentrate the now-charged winds from the northeast, thereby producing large vertical clouds, focused around the River Catatumbo.

This phenomenon, also known with the popular name of the Lighthouse of Maracaibo, is easy to be seen from hundreds of miles away, e.g. from the lake (where no clouds usually occur at night), as the boats that sail the area navigate at night without any problems. The storms have an annual occurrence of 140 to 160 nights, each lasting up to 10 hours per night and each producing up to 280 strikes per hour. Furthermore, these thunderstorms produce a high percentage of all the ozone production worldwide. The Catatumbo Lightning can be considered a major regenerator of the planet’s ozone layer, as it produces approximately 1,176,000 kW of atmospheric electricity.

The Catatumbo lightning usually develops between the coordinates 8 ° 30 ‘and 9 º 45’ north latitude and 71 º and 73 º W.

Historical references

Historically the first written mention of the Catatumbo lightning was in the epic poem “La Dragontea” by Lope de Vega (1597) where the death of the English pirate or privateer Sir Francis Drake is narrated.

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.

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 the scientist Andrew Zavrotsky with assistance from the University of Los Andes made three expeditions which concluded that the area would have several epicentres in the marshes of the Swamp National Park Juan Manuel de Aguas, Claras Aguas Negras and west Lake Maracaibo, and 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.

Between 1997 and 2000 Nelson Falcón conducted several expeditions and produced the first microphysics model of the Catatumbo Lightning identifying methane as a major cause of the phenomenon, but this is considered to be mere speculation since the presence of methane in the area is not as elevated as in other areas such as oil drills or desertic areas where such a phenomenon as constant lightning is never present. It has been noted to have little effects on local flora such as ferns, despite concerns.

Drought extinguishes Venezuela’s lightning phenomenon

www.guardian.co.uk , 5 March 2010 By Rory Carroll in Caracas

Lake Maracaibo left in darkness as drought caused by El Niño disrupts weather patterns that cause constant lightning storms.

Darkness rarely lasted long in the skies over Lake Maracaibo. An hour after dusk the show would begin: a lightning bolt, then another, and another, until the whole horizon flashed white.

Electrical storms, product of a unique meteorological phenomenon, have lit up nights in this corner of Venezuela for thousands of years. Francis Drake abandoned a sneak attack on the city of Maracaibo in 1595 when lightning betrayed his ships to the Spanish garrison.

But now the lightning has vanished. A phenomenon that once unleashed up to 20,000 bolts a night stopped in late January. Not a single bolt has been seen since.

“This is unprecedented. In recorded history we have not had such a long stretch without lightning,” said Erik Quiroga, an environmentalist and leading authority on the Relampago de Catatumbo, or Catatumbo Lightning.

The spectacle, one of the longest single displays of continuous lightning in the world, lasts up to nine hours a night. On average it is visible over 160 nights a year and from 400km away. Lightning bolts discharged from cloud to cloud strike 16 to 40 times a minute. They can reach an intensity of 400,000 amps but are so high thunder is inaudible. There are similar phenomena in Colombia, Indonesia and Uganda but they do not last the whole night.

Fishermen in the village of Congo Mirador, a collection of wooden huts on stilts at the phenomenon’s epicentre, are puzzled and anxious by its absence. “It has always been with us,” said Edin Hernandez, 62. “It guides us at night, like a lighthouse. We miss it.”

The celestial spectacular appears to be a casualty of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which has disrupted global weather patterns and caused a severe drought in Venezuela. Rain has all but disappeared, drying up rivers and disrupting the conditions that produce the lightning, whose causes remain unclear. One theory links it to decomposing organic materials which release methane. Another links it to Andean winds blowing across marshes, generating low pressure and building up an electrical charge in the atmosphere.

The last time the phenomenon vanished was in 1906 after a catastrophic 8.8-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Ecuador and Colombia unleashed a tsunami. The lightning returned three weeks later.

Now it is five weeks and there is still no sign of the nocturnal flashes.

“I look for it every night but there is nothing,” said Francisca Hernandez, 28, a schoolteacher in Congo Mirador who monitors Lake Maracaibo’s sky for researchers based in Caracas.

Some scientists believe the electrical storms help replenish the ozone layer. Others doubt that, saying the ozone they produce reaches only the tropospheric atmosphere.

The drought has also extinguished many man-made lights across Venezuela as the country relies largely on hydropower. Last month, the president, Hugo Chávez, declared an electricity emergency and said severe rationing, which has blacked out towns and cities, could last months. One state electricity company told workers to pray for rain.

Losing the lightning is a symbolic blow. In addition to warding off Drake’s naval assault – an event celebrated in Lope de Vega’s 1598 epic poem – it is credited with helping independence fighters defeat a Spanish fleet in 1823. The state of Zulia, which encompasses Lake Maracaibo, has a lightning bolt across its centre and refers to the phenomenon in its anthem.

Quiroga worries that when rains return the lightning may not recover its former glory. It was dwindling in frequency and force even before the drought, probably because deforestation and agriculture had clogged the Catatumbo river and several lagoons with silt.

“This is a unique gift and we are at risk of losing it,” said Quiroga, who has led scientific teams to its epicentre. He has lobbied Venezuelan authorities to protect the area and the United Nations to recognise it as a world heritage site. A Unesco spokeswoman said there were no plans to do so because electrical storms did not have a “site”.

Gaspar Llinares