Storm chasers, rejoice! Fans of thunder, lightning and other extreme weather phenomena need look no further to feed their obsession. For everyone else, pack a mac. This article is an excerpt from Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2013.
Catatumbo Lightning, Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
Catatumbo National Park comes as something of a shock. Unusual climate conditions – thought to result from the unique proximity of 5,000m-high peaks (the Andes) and a sea-level reservoir (Lake Maracaibo) – cause one of the world’s longest and most consistent lightning displays, though its power has diminished somewhat in recent years. Even still, on average the skies here are electrified on 160 nights a year, with bolts striking up to 40 times a minute for up to nine hours, visible from 400km away. Strangely, though, the associated thunder is inaudible, rendering this fury an eerily silent spectacle.
Tours to Catatumbo can be arranged from Mérida; lightning is more likely during the wet season (May to December).
Moonbow, Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders) is no ordinary waterfall. Here, a 1700m-wide sheet of Zambezi River plunges more than 100m into the gorge below. And here, on certain evenings, it puts on some extra sparkle. By day, rainbows often arc over this roaring cascade, caused by sunlight reflecting off the considerable spray. But when the moon’s full and the sky’s cloud-free, the same happens at night – though colours are barely discernible due to the fainter light. Stand on the Zambian side just after moonrise for the best chance of a glimpse. Just watch out for the buffalo and elephant that like night-walking too.
Moonbows are best seen April to July, when water levels are highest, thus creating sufficient spray.
Morning Glory, Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia
There’s a wonderful Aussie-ness to weather prediction in far-north outback Queensland. They say: if a brisk sea breeze has been blowing through Burketown, and if the fridges in the pub have frosted over, there’s a good chance the next day will bring a Morning Glory. Scientific? Maybe not. But the Gulf of Carpentaria is the only place where these enormous roll clouds – often 1000km long, 1km to 2km high, hovering just 100m above the ground and travelling at up to 60km/hour – can be predictably seen. And scientifically forecast or otherwise, it’s worth raising a tinny to that.
Morning Glories form early in the day in September and October; scenic flights are available from Burketown.
Extreme cold, Antarctica
It’s no surprise the planet’s coldest temperature was recorded in Antarctica – a downright nippy -89.2°C at the Russian Vostok Station. Much stranger is the fact that the White Continent is a desert, due to its lack of rain. It’s scientists who feel the region’s harshest extremes – they visit the coldest, darkest reaches at the coldest, darkest times. Passing travellers get off lighter, most cruising to the wildlife-crazy Antarctic Peninsula in summer, when the weather’s a ‘balmy’ 0°C – the mere tip of the iceberg.
Most Antarctic expeditions depart from Ushuaia, Argentina; the summer cruise season runs from November to March.
Tornado Alley, Midwest USA
There is no Tornado Alley. At least, not in a discrete, accurately mappable sense. But there is a clump of the American midwest – states such as Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and the Dakotas – where whirlwinds whip through with particular oomph and frequency: 90% of the USA’s tornadoes twist here, as the cold, dry Rocky Mountain air hits the moist breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. Peak time for such Dorothy-bothering cyclones is May to June, when the best plan is to hole up in Oklahoma City or Denver, and be ready to make a dash when you hear the forecast…
Storm Chasing Adventure Tours runs small, safe, six-day trips in Tornado Alley; see www.stormchasing.com.
Monsoon, Meghalaya, India
In Hindi, Meghalaya means ‘Home of the Clouds’ – an appropriate epithet for India’s soggiest state, wherein lie a couple of contenders for ‘world’s wettest place’. The village of Mawsynram, tucked into the unsurprisingly lush East Khasi Hills, receives an annual average of 11,872mm of rain – a boon for the waterfalls that thunder dramatically down the surrounding steep slopes. However, it’s nearby Cherrapunjee that declares itself to be the dampest spot of all; to cope, locals traverse the surrounding countryside via ‘living bridges’ – natural fairytale spans made of rubber-tree roots, which don’t wash away in the rain.
Most rain falls during the summer monsoon, which starts by the third week of May and continues to October.
Camanchacas, Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert is a mighty parched place. The region sees an annual average of less than 1mm of rain; some areas haven’t had so much as drizzle for 400 years. Barren plains are prevalent, soil is Mars-like, ancient bodies are mummified by the arid air. And yet there is life here – largely thanks to the camanchacas, vast banks of marine fog that float inland off the Pacific and provide a few cleverly adapted residents (llama-like guanacos, foxes, prickly cacti) with a little liquid. Sit and watch the mists roll in, and you may also glimpse the wildlife taking a grateful drink.
San Pedro de Atacama is the region’s tourism hub; it is 1670km and a 20-hour bus ride from Santiago.
Storms, Vancouver Island, Canada
Most places keep quiet about their bad weather – it tends to put tourists off. Not so Vancouver Island, which positively revels in the wild wind-lashings and 8m-high-wave-poundings it receives. From October, a low-pressure system amasses ominously in the Gulf of Alaska, nudging the tempestuous Arctic-meets-subtropical-air front southwards. And this places the British Columbian island right in the path of the resulting storms; from November to February, a gazillion gales smack into the exposed west coast. Spend the winter in Tofino to watch the full Pacific fury. When it’s subsided, head out beachcombing, to see what treasures the storm has unearthed.
Tofino, near Pacific Rim National Park, is on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, a five-hour drive from capital Victoria.
Heat haze, Death Valley, USA
El Azizia, Libya, is officially the hottest place on earth, having once pushed the mercury to 57.8°C. But Death Valley runs a close second. The fieriest temperature recorded in this Californian depression (at aptly named Furnace Creek) is 56.7°C; moreover, it’s the most consistently sweltering spot anywhere (not to mention boasting the world’s biggest thermometer – in nearby Baker, in case you’re interested). Despite all this, Death Valley is far from dead: sidewinder rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats, even a species of fish all survive here. And catch it after a rare mini-downpour to see wildflowers put on a brief but brilliant show.
Aurora Borealis, Abisko, Sweden
The time is nigh to catch the most magical of celestial spectacles: NASA has predicted 2012–13 will see a 50-year peak in auroral activity. And what activity – the northern lights are the ballerinas of the meteorological world. Graceful shimmers of green, yellow and red, they pirouette and cabriole across the skies, a dazzling dance on a heavenly stage. The performance can be seen at high latitudes all over the northern hemisphere, but clear and perpetually cloudless Abisko is one of the best spots – during winter at this outpost in Swedish Lapland, the lights come out to play almost every night.
Abisko is 100km west of Kiruna, which has an airport. The best time for aurora-viewing is December to March.