More Lago de Maracaibo

More oddities began to appear as I explored the borders of Venezuela’s Lago de Maracaibo a bit further. Then I noticed that advertisements embedded entirely within unrelated websites began to display in Spanish as I visited them. Google didn’t know what to make of me with all of my disjointed Twelve Mile Circle searching. Its algorithms now thought I spoke Spanish so it fed me a steady diet of Spanish ads. I supposed its vast database will categorize me in some other way once I research another article.

Maybe I’ll start getting referrals for mental health services because, obviously, I couldn’t stick to a single coherent line of reasoning for more than a day or two. However, and getting back to the point, the lake held many mysteries, more than could be contained within a single article. So I’ll probably suffer through a few more Spanish advertisements for a little while longer. This are the hardships I gladly endure for the 12MC audience. The truth must be told.

Lago de Maracaibo

Maracaibo. Photo by crl_ on Flickr (cc)

I supposed I should take a step back and appreciate the vastness of the lake in its entirety. It covered a massive surface area, 13,210 square kilometres (5,100 square miles). By comparison, that made it larger than the land area of the U.S. states of Connecticut, Delaware or Rhode Island. Technically it also probably didn’t qualify as a lake. More properly it might be considered a tidal bay or an inlet of the Caribbean Sea. Nonetheless it once existed a true lake, so the name said lake: it might be "… the second oldest [lake in the world], having been created approximately 36 million years ago."

No other lake in South America eclipsed Lago de Maracaibo assuming one considered it to be a lake. Otherwise the honor went to Lake Titicaca, the home of the landlocked Bolivian Navy. I don’t see anyone trying to change the name of Lago de Maracaibo anytime soon so a "lake" it shall remain.

The larger Lake Maracaibo Basin also contained Venezuela’s economic lifeline, its famously voluminous oil reserves.

The Maracaibo basin of western Venezuela is one of the world’s most important oil producing basins, with a cumulative production of more than 35 billion bbl. The reasons for this great wealth of hydrocarbons are a combination of source beds of excellent quality, thick reservoirs with high porosity and permeability, and a series of sealing shales, faults, and unconformities, which provide large and numerous traps.

Obviously it had a lot going for it.

Puente General Rafael Urdaneta

General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge
General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge. Photo by Wilfredorrh on Flickr (cc)

I looked more closely again at the map from the previous article. I noticed that the Venezuelan state of Zulia contained another, much larger exclave. The waterway that separated lake from gulf — the Tablazo Strait — also separated the main body of Zulia from its eastern side. It didn’t much matter though, or at least it hadn’t since 1962. That’s when construction of the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge finally ended (map). This five-span crossing stretched nearly 9 kilometres and connected the two primary portions of Zulia. That provided a side benefit, not a primary purpose. The bridge truly existed to connecting the city of Maracaibo and its 2.5 million residents to the rest of Venezuela.

The general with the bridge named for him grew up in Maracaibo; born there in 1788. Urdaneta performed heroically during South America independence movement and later became president of Columbia. He probably deserved a bridge named in his honor.

Catatumbo Lightning

Catatumbo Lightning | Rayo del Catatumbo
Catatumbo Lightning | Rayo del Catatumbo. Photo by Fernando Flores on Flickr (cc)

Lago de Maracaibo delighted in other ways, specifically along its surface. Any internet search mentioning the lake undoubtedly turned up results talking about the Catatumbo Lightning. This strange phenomenon occurred where the Catatumbo River joined Lake Maracaibo on its southwestern bank (map). Moisture got trapped above the swampy plains of the river delta, hemmed-in by mountains on three sides. Winds blew steadily across the plains generating electrical charges. Destabilized air created massive thunderstorms. This happy confluence became the most electric place on earth, with storms lasting several hours at a time about 260 days per year, accompanied by a near constant barrage of lightening.

Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for "highest concentration of lightning" with 250 lightning flashes per square kilometre each year. The storms ease off in the dryer months of January and February and are most spectacular at the peak of the wet season around October. At this time of year, you can see an average of 28 lightning flashes each minute.

It happened only in a small area, at the mouth of the river. Only there did conditions line up in the exact configuration necessary to produce an almost daily electrical storm. I don’t think I’d want to get too close for too long, not with every square kilometre getting zapped nearly every storm.

We Interrupt our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Those 12MC readers expecting to see the results of Mexican foreshadowing will have to wait a little longer. It’s been a rather wild ride in the Washington, DC area over the last couple of days. The thermometer hit 104° Fahrenheit (40° c.) on Friday afternoon. That not only shattered a temperature extreme for the date, it was also the hottest day recorded in the month of June ever since recordkeeping began something like 150 years ago. I had no intention of mentioning it on the Twelve Mile Circle, actually. It was a hot day. So what. It’s not like we’re in Arizona.

It’s what came later that impressed me: an epic derecho like I’ve never seen before, feeding on searing heat and an intensely unstable air mass. As the U.S. National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center describes the phenomenon:

A derecho (pronounced similar to “deh-REY-cho” in English…) is a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms. Although a derecho can produce destruction similar to that of tornadoes, the damage typically is directed in one direction along a relatively straight swath. As a result, the term "straight-line wind damage" sometimes is used to describe derecho damage. By definition, if the wind damage swath extends more than 240 miles (about 400 kilometers) and includes wind gusts of at least 58 mph (93 km/h) or greater along most of its length, then the event may be classified as a derecho.

This one pushed 700 miles and and hit with winds of 70-75 mph, leaving more than a million people in the Washington, DC area without electrical power when it finally arrived. It was memorable enough for Wikipedia to include a page within a few hours: June 2012 Mid-Atlantic and Midwest derecho.

The derecho slammed into my home right around 10:45 pm and it left almost as quickly as it came. I knew it was bad, though. The light of a thousand lightning flashes silhouetted trees flailing violently, with branches and limbs ripped and thrown to the ground. A desperate message hit the neighborhood email list, "Can someone try to call 911 Power pole on northeast corner of [street x] and [street y] is *on fire* and 911 will not answer for me!" It was that kind of night.

Virginia Storm Power Outage June 2012
Power Outages in Northern Virginia, afternoon of June 30, 2012

Only daylight would reveal the true extent of damage that the Governor of Virginia called, "the broadest non-hurricane related power outage in Virginia history."

Electrical power returned to our home sometime during the night — we were lucky, lines were down all over the region with widespread outages on three sides of our immediate community — but we did lose our fiber optic Internet access and television for most of the day (I’ll take air conditioning over Internet access during a heat wave, thank you very much, so no complaints here). We still don’t have telephone service, not that it really matters. I can’t remember the last time we received a legitimate telephone phone call on a land line. Maybe this will finally serve as motivation to get rid of it.

With brush cleared from the yard and no Internet to entertain us, my younger son and I went about our normal disaster ritual, a leisurely bike ride to survey the damage. We discovered immediately that our street escaped the worst of it. A microburst or some similarly destructive force slammed into a swath of streets about four blocks due east.

Storm Damage - Trees Down

Notice the remainder of a tree on the left side of this photograph. That was a majestic oak at this time the day before. Now it’s a thirty-foot stump with its canopy completely blocking the road. I chatted with one of the nearby residents who’d parked two automobiles there the night before that somehow escaped unscathed. I think he should go play the Lotto. Stories repeated themselves up-and-down nearby streets: lots of tree damage; lots of electrical wires down; superficial damage to homes; and a feeling of gratefulness that it wasn’t worse.

Virginia Storm Sign

I live in an older neighborhood of pre-war (WW2) homes and small lots. It embodies an aesthetic re-envisioned a half century later by the New Urbanism movement. It’s a walkable place anchored by the local elementary school. It feels more like the small town where I lived when I was younger, where everybody-knows-everybody. It’s remarkable to replicate this feeling at a place that’s within visible distance of the Washington Monument.

It doesn’t surprise me that all of the neighbors look out for each other when it’s time to dig out from the mess.

Epilogue. Just as I was getting ready to publish this on Saturday evening, reading over the draft a final time, the power went out for four hours. We still have a way to go, apparently.