‘Earthquake lights,’ or earthquake luminosity, is the name of a phenomenon that occurs just before, during, or right after an earthquake. Earthquake lights are lights that appear from seemingly nowhere, and disappear just as mysteriously. They come in many colors and forms. People have reported seeing them for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until now that scientists believe they may finally understand why strange lights are seen during an earthquake.
A report from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1975 about the Kalapana earthquake on the Big Island of Hawaii described the earthquake lights that were seen during and immediately after the quake. The report stated that,
During and immediately after the main shock, ‘earthquake lights’ of white to bluish flashes or glows lasting several seconds were reported by a number of observers… The lights are believed to be results of earthquake-induced distortions of the atmosphere.
An earthquake-induced distortion of the atmosphere is scientific jargon for “we have no idea.”
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Earthquake lights can last for hours at a time and have been spotted many miles away from the epicenter of earthquakes. They are certainly strange, but researchers believe that a new study is the most likely hypothesis for why and how earthquake lights form.
The study, published in Seismological Research Letters, represents a whole new approach to understanding earthquake lights. The study explains that earthquake lights are a phenomenon that have been known about for hundreds of years, explaining that,
With the beginning of seismology as a science in the 19th century, many scholars devoted time to reporting luminosities associated with earthquake activity. To name a few, the Irish engineer Robert Mallet, the “founder of seismology”, published a five part catalog entitled “On the Facts of Earthquake Phenomena”… in which numerous reports on earthquake luminosities can be found. His catalog, first presented to the British Association of Science, covers the years 1606 B.C. to 1842 A.D.. Ignazio Galli, an Italian priest who graduated in Natural Sciences, published in the early 1900s a catalog of 148 seismic events associated with different types of luminosities. His catalog covers the years 89 B.C. to 1910 A.D.
Looks like both religion and science have been aware of earthquake lights for some time. The study goes on to explain the past theories for earthquake lights. There are two major past theories, and another fringe theory:
Old Theory 1: Earthquake lights are the result of intense electric fields which cause atmospheric disturbances. These fields are created through piezoelectricity, a charge that accumulates in crystals undergoing stress. Because there are a great deal of rocks in the earth that contain quartz crystal, this theory is plausible. Thrown violently about by tectonic plates, the quartz crystals release piezoelectricity and could be creating a luminescent stir in the atmosphere.
Old Theory 2: Earthquake lights are caused by local disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field within the ionosphere. These disturbances are caused by tectonic stress. A glow can be seen as the magnetic field and particles in the ionosphere recombine and reform. This theory is the least likely of the two because the described effects on the ionosphere have not been notably observed.
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Old Theory 3: Earthquake lights are created using government technology under the authority of a project called the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP. HAARP’s aim is to better understand the ionosphere and how it can be manipulated and used to provide better communication and surveillance for civilian and military use. Many believe that HAARP is used to create natural disasters by disrupting Earth’s magnetic field. They also think it could be a mind control device. This theory is the most likely to remain a theory for a very long time.
New Theory: Earthquake lights are caused by the release of negatively-charged oxygen atoms created through high intensity stress. These atoms slip through cracks in the earth and reach the atmosphere even before an earthquake can be felt. Dense groups of these atoms ionize pockets of air, creating a plasma that emits light.
The new theory on earthquake lights is the most likely to be true as it explains why the lights can be seen for up to days before the earthquake begins. Tectonic stress gradually builds up over an extended period of time, and according to the theory, so do the lights.
Despite earthquake lights occurring 85% of the time at earthquake sites that account for only 5% of all earthquakes, researchers are hopeful that the lights might one day be used as an early warning system.