It was only 11 a.m. when Alan Highton stared out into the clear blue sky over Lake Maracaibo and declared that it would be a fine night for a tremendous storm.
He wasn’t wrong, but it was an easy guess: 240 nights out of the year, this swath of the planet lights up with one of nature’s most magnificent spectacles, as lightning cuts through the sky at rates matched nowhere else on the planet.
It’s sometimes called the Faro del Catatumbo, or the Catatumbo Lighthouse, because it’s so bright and constant that sailors were said to navigate by it.
For decades, meteorologists believed the town of Kifuka in the Democratic Republic of Congo was the king of lightning activity. But more recently, relying on data from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission satellite, this area in western Venezuela has stolen Kifuka’s thunder — recording 250 lightning flashes per square kilometer, or 0.39 square miles, annually.
By comparison, Florida, which has the highest rate in the United States, gets only 59 lightning flashes per square kilometer annually and the dethroned Kifuka gets 158.
The faro has been in the books for centuries. Spanish poet Lope de Vega in his 1597 poem La Dragontea tells the story of night skies so bright that they kept the English pirate Sir Francis Drake from raiding Maracaibo. During his travels through South America from 1799 to 1804, famed German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt jotted down theories that the light show might be related to an “air-volcano” or “asphaltic soils” releasing “inflammable exhalations.”
Now, the phenomenon is getting its pop-culture due: a listing in next year’s Guinness World Records.
Highton, 50, a native of Barbados, is the faro’s de facto ambassador.
He first began admiring the phenomenon during the 1980s, when he was working on a farm in the surrounding hills.
“It was incredible that we had lightning every single morning almost the whole year,” he said. “But no one told me it was special.”
Years later, he moved into a small house in the lakeside village of Ologa to get a front-row seat — a view that he’s been sharing with the growing number of tourists he brings to the site.
Despite witnessing the show for decades, Highton’s enthusiasm often seems to eclipse that of his guests.
During a recent visit, he burst into a bunkhouse at 1 a.m. and began rattling a tambourine to wake visitors. “It’s started!” he said.
In the distance, the skies were alight with hues of purple and deep orange, as lightning arced between clouds and danced across the lake.
Three hours later, when the activity spiked again but everyone was back in bed, Highton was banging the tambourine again.
Ologa is a postcard of brightly painted stilt-houses that straddle a narrow spit of land between a lagoon and Lake Maracaibo. Almost everyone in the fishing village of 300 seems to have a story about fried wiring and dead stereos that they blame on the faro.
Angel Alberto Villasmil, 72, said one time lightning hit so close “it put my whole body to sleep and killed my black chicken.”
Highton said the lightning rod on his house — one of the few in town — has taken direct hits at least 30 times in recent years.
Ever since Humboldt’s time of “air-volcanoes,” researchers have speculated about the nature of the faro. Some argue that methane particles drifting off the lake and surrounding swamps might be fueling the storms. But the most compelling explanation is also the most mundane: Lake Maracaibo is nuzzled in a fork of the Andes mountain chain, open to sea breezes from the north. At night, the mountain and ocean winds clash over the warm water.
“All this convergence over a hot and humid environment . . . makes it the perfect spot for thunderstorm development and high flash-rate occurrence,” according to a research paper presented at the 2011 International Conference on Atmospheric Electricity in Brazil.
For most people, Lake Maracaibo conjures up the image of oil platforms and its gritty namesake city, Venezuela’s second largest, that sits at the lake’s northern edge.
But the lake covers 5,100 square miles — more than three times the size of Rhode Island — and its southern portion is isolated and partially protected by the Cienegas de Juan Manuel National Park. Here, sotalia freshwater dolphin chase the boats of crab fishermen, and the flooded forests that line the banks teem with wildlife.
Erik Quiroga, a Venezuelan environmentalist who was key to getting the faro in next year’s Guinness book, hopes to use the lightning to build awareness about this part of Venezuela. He wants the government to do more to protect the wetlands and prepare the area for the flood of researchers and tourists he thinks will flock to the area.
“This is already a big deal nationally, and could have a really big impact on the area,” Quiroga said.
When Highton isn’t watching lightning, he’s in the forest. He has already discovered two subspecies of the morpho butterfly. Morphos — large and almost iridescently blue — are an iconic symbol of the tropics. To find a new subspecies is like finding a new subspecies of cat.
“To find something that big and obvious,” Highton said, “is a sign that not much [research] is being done around here.”
He named one butterfly after his grandfather and the other he named after himself, Morpho rhetenor hightoni.
“I feel immortalized,” he said. “I can die now. Life has been lived. I’ve done my part.”
Highton considers himself a scientist, but the faro has made him superstitious. During trying times or when family members have died, the night lights seem to be paying homage to his grief. Visitors with deep religious convictions also seem to bring the sky alive, he said.
“People who aren’t so nice get a lesser lightning. When you get cool people, you get big storms,” he said. “Like the indigenous people who lived here 500 years ago, I seriously believe there is some sort of strange connection between people and this phenomenon.”