According to a study by Rachel et al. (2016) based on high-resolution data, Africa is the continent with the highest frequency of lightning strikes. The analysis showed that the region with the most lightning strikes was not the eastern Congo basin in Africa, as previously assumed, but Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. As part of this study, a list was also compiled of the
500 locations most affected by lightning in the regions overflown by the TRMM satellite (0–38° N/S). The number of lightning strikes per square kilometre within one year (Flash Rate Density, FRD) was calculated for each year. None of these locations are in Europe.
Even though the most recent data used in this study are from 2013, the results are still valid today. Despite global warming, the distribution of Earth’s most lightning-dense zones has not changed significantly.
The five regions with the most lightning on each continent plus other special regions
- South America
- North America
In South America, there are five hotspots with a higher lightning rate. These are distributed over Colombia and Venezuela. Lake Maracaibo is the region with the most lightning in the world, with 233 lightning strikes per km2 per year.
Over Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, the largest inland waterbody in South America, a unique natural spectacle can be seen at night: Lightning illuminates the tropical darkness on up to 260 nights a year, especially at the spot where the Río Catatumbo flows into the lake. With up to 60 flashes per minute, or almost 1,176,000 flashes a year, this phenomenon is even in the Guinness Book of Records.
The lightning occurs so frequently at night that this region once served as a lighthouse for Caribbean sailors in colonial times. This phenomenon (known in Spanish as Relámpago del Catatumbo) remains full of mystery to this day, and there are numerous theories surrounding the unusual electrical activity.
However, the reason for it is relatively simple: Lake Maracaibo lies between two mountain ranges of the Andes massif. During the day, large amounts of water evaporate from the lake due to the high surface temperature, which averages 30 degrees. In addition, the Caribbean Sea in the north adds to the moisture. During the night, the air cools rapidly over the nearby Andean peaks, and winds form over the two mountain ranges to the west and south, converging over the warm lake. The pronounced wind convergence combined with moist, unstable air stratification provides an additional trigger for the uplift process required for thunderstorms. As a result, large, vertical thunderstorm cells regularly form over the lake and its surroundings during the evening and at night.
All the other hotspots in South America are in Colombia. The frequency of lightning strikes is also very high in that region compared to other parts of the world, especially in the foothills of the northern Andes massif. This level is only surpassed by some regions in Pakistan and India. In many of the Colombian thunderstorm regions, the greatest amount of electrical activity is recorded at night. This is probably also due to stationary convergence (reverse thermals), given the topography.