Venezuela tops world lightning conductor league

Lake Maracaibo is planet's strikes per year hotspot

Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo has wrested the world's "maximum lightning activity" crown from Africa's Congo Basin, according to electrifying data from the joint NASA and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM).

Using 16 years of detection data from the now-deceased TRMM satellite's Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS), scientists were able to identify "an average rate of about 233 flashes per square kilometer per year" at the lake.

NASA explains: "Located in northwest Venezuela along part of the Andes Mountains, it is the largest lake in South America. Storms commonly form there at night as mountain breezes develop and converge over the warm, moist air over the lake. These unique conditions contribute to the development of persistent deep convection resulting in an average of 297 nocturnal thunderstorms per year, peaking in September."

While the Congo Basin had previously been identified as the planet's "lightning capital", Africa is still pretty lively on the thunderbolt front, being "home to six of the world's top ten sites for lightning activity".

NASA elaborates: "The majority of the hotspots were by Lake Victoria and other lakes along the East African Rift Valley, which have a similar geography to Lake Maracaibo."

Richard Blakeslee, LIS project scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, worked with lightning researchers from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the University of Maryland, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the University of São Paulo on the LIS data.

He said: "Our research using LIS observations in new ways is a prime example of how NASA partners with scientists all over the world to better understand and appreciate our home planet."

The team's findings are published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

NASA explains that LIS "detects the distribution and variability of total lightning – cloud-to-cloud, intracloud, and cloud to ground – that occurs in the tropical regions of the globe".

The space agency elaborates: "LIS uses a specialized, high-speed imaging system to look for changes in the optical output caused by lightning in the tops of clouds. By analyzing a narrow wavelength band around 777 nanometers - which is in the near-infrared region of the spectrum - the sensors can spot brief lightning flashes even under bright daytime conditions that swamp out the small lightning signal."

A spare LIS instrument, built back in the 1990s, is due to fly to the International Space Station later this year to continue its predecessor's lightning watch. ®

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