The tour that Alexander von Humdoldt made at the end of the eighteenth century through the lands of South America would be something he would never forget in his long existence. Abundant rivers and mountains, unique plant richness and multiple natural phenomena, captured the attention of the Prussian explorer, who Among his plans was “to find out the physical phenomena represented by the part of the new continent, which is contained in the hot zone, from the level of the South Sea to the crest of the highest mountain in the Andes”as he himself notes.
Humboldt is equipped with various instruments to take a variety of measurements on his captivating journey. Among them was an electroscope, a simple instrument for determining the presence of electric charges from the separation to which two thin plates are exposed due to electrostatic repulsion. This device was used to measure atmospheric electricity, and Humboldt used it to make measurements during thunderstorms and find possible correlations with the movement of the sun. – Depending on the apparent passage of the Sun through the celestial vault at different times of the year – with wind, temperature and even tremors.
Humboldt learned of a mysterious meteorological phenomenon occurring from the southern region of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela to the lower basin of the Catatumbo River in Colombia. It is the Catatumbo lightning, also known as the Maracaibo lighthouse, and consists of a flash in the sky, accompanied by deafening thunder that occurs constantly.
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Although Humboldt did not visit the Catatumbo region directly on his voyage, he had a particular interest in the descriptions provided for this particular phenomenon, which many have referred to as a volcano in the air.
The first mention of Catatumbo lightning is found in a poem by Lope de Vega, from 1597, which recounts the defeat of the English pirate Francis Drake, and it was something that attracted the attention of explorers and geographers for centuries. The inhabitants of the region were well aware of the mysterious brightness, which Agustín Codazzi also describes in his summary of the geography of Venezuela.
Recent research confirms that the conditions of the region, where the confluence of hot and cold air currents promoted by the topography of the place occurs, give rise to a series of continuous electric discharge at an altitude of about 15 kilometers. With the support of satellite images, it has been confirmed that the phenomenon occurs between 260 and 300 days a year, and can reach 250 lightning strikes per square kilometer.
Katatumbo is the region in the world with the highest lightning activity, and in fact, since 2014, it has set this Guinness record.an initiative promoted by the state of Zulia in Venezuela, whose flag is pierced by the image of a giant lightning bolt, and its anthem contains a hint syllable: “The light with which the thunderbolt of Catatumbo / The steamer cycle / A transparent lantern”.
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PhD in Astrophysics
Astronomical Observatory of the National University
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