Still No Reason to Suspect ‘Earthquake Lights’ Are a Thing

Since the November 13, 2016 earthquake in New Zealand, my inbox has been bursting with reports of EQLs (earthquake lights). A number of YouTube videos have surfaced from locals who were quick on the draw with their phones in the middle of the night, and predictably, it re-ignited the popular belief in a phenomenon called earthquake lights.

Here’s one of the videos:

Pretty amazing, huh?

Not too long ago I did a full Skeptoid episode on EQLs which you can check out, but the summary is this: Scattered reports of EQLs over the years have been far too disparate to represent any single phenomenon; people were probably seeing lots of different things. Sciencey-sounding theories have been put forth for decades, many by good scientists, but they’ve all been wild, far-out claims of things that have never actually been observed in nature. The latest discuss voltages in the ground during quakes (which have been measured, albeit inconsistently) somehow causing great fields of light in the sky, via one of several hypothetical mechanisms.

A far simpler explanation exists: the observers were seeing light effects from sources unknown to them, but not unknowable, and not requiring an exotic explanation.

Here’s one source that’s been known to trigger reports of EQLs many times. This happened throughout New Zealand during the earthquake:

I received many reports from people in New Zealand. All that I personally received were from Lower Hutt, looking north. I don’t know where this particular video was taken, but someone sent me another video of a similar event (unfortunately since removed from YouTube) and it was taken in the north of Lower Hutt (but these likely happened in many places; power outages were recorded throughout the region). One New Zealand geologist who was driving home at the time saw the same event, and wrote this blog describing his experience as proof that EQL are a real phenomenon. The direction he described? Facing straight toward the Lower Hutt area.

Why the different colors? When something explodes or burns, such as electrical equipment, it’s the combusting material that determines the color. We had many events, so we expect to see many colors.

Of the “sciencey-sounding” theories that talk about the air fluorescing due to this proposed geoelectrical effect, only one color is possible: blue-violet, as that’s the color at which air fluoresces, St. Elmo’s Fire being the obvious example. In addition, there is no known mechanism (or observation) by which this could happen outside the immediate vicinity of a solid prominence.

We would all love for something as cool as EQLs to be real, and maybe it is, but this science writer is not yet persuaded that the evidence is strong enough.

Remember, the world’s largest database of earthquake descriptions, kept by the Chinese over a period of a thousand years, reported many effects but never lights. Of course, they didn’t have electrical grids either.   😉

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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13 Responses to Still No Reason to Suspect ‘Earthquake Lights’ Are a Thing

  1. Frank Rosser says:

    The Mykele Johansen video of the arcing powerlines you show was filmed in Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand. I checked, he has a Facebook account. He even gives the name of the road he was on!

  2. A similar thing happened in Peru in 2007. What was widely claimed as “earthquake lights” are probably just electrical transformers exploding.

  3. mudguts says:

    I got questioned about this on the basis it was real (hadnt heard of it 5 years ago). The questioner wondered if it was NORM. Not enough if it I am afraid.. And of course, it would be painfully obvious nowadays..

  4. Bruno Tonon says:

    Do you assume that the Video is real and that the lights flashed during the earthquake????
    Just curious????

  5. On the basis of extraordinary speculations requiring extraordinary support, I am not inclined to take it seriously enough to promote it to the status of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary support.

    • Shane Harvey says:

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. “I saw a man riding a horse” is an ordinary claim. My evidence would be to show you a man riding a horse. “I saw a yeti riding a Unicorn” is an extraordinary claim, my extraordinary evidence would be me to show you a yeti riding a unicorn. Same evidence. Of course I was lying about the man riding a horse it was a yeti cooler attached to the back of a 160cc Unicorn Motorcycle. You can’t say how extraordinary a claim is without all of the details. Earthquake lights, all we have is vague claims of lights in the sky or on the ground at approximately at or around the time of an earthquake and a hell of o lot of speculation on the cause or causes. How do I know what not to believe in if I don’t even know what it is I’m not supposed to believe in. I find that most extraordinary claims have one thing in common, the vague, multiple, absent or just plain wrong theoretical underlying mechanism that makes it impossible to know how extraordinary it is.

      • Bruno Tonon says:

        Shane something happened and if we are to accept the you tube Video is real , the light flashes are very extraordinary and spectacular enough to question or ask what they are.????
        What is your take or explanation of these lights????

  6. ask412 says:

    “Lights Appear In Sky After New Zealand Earthquake” Youtube video by Caters Clips * [pronounced ‘Caters Clups’]

    ‘The uncommon occurrence was captured by Ayman Aljoj as the tremors shook outside his home in Wellington just after midnight on Sunday November 12’

    ‘An aurora-like burst of light appeared in the pitch black sky, created by vertical faults allowing stress-induced electrical currents to flow rapidly to the surface’ Caters Clips [pronounced ‘Caters Clups’]

    Ayman said:

    “I was very scared, as I thought it was something big that struck the earth, like another planet or a star…I couldn’t figure out the relationship between the ground shaking under my feet and…the sky up above…All I was able to remember…ask for help from is God…”

    That just about sums up this whole episode created by severe seismic activity: ‘God Knows’, and some people literally believe this

    Any certainty God does actually know, to the rational aware thinker is an utterly irrational descent to earlier values grown through as individuals or groups

    All events are explainable with current science, and the probability of, a ‘God’ or ‘Gods’ actually being involved is very, very low

    Still, if you are reading this, you might just be one of the 89% – 79% in America who still actually believe in God^

    Which was just a segue to a probable explanation of the geopolitical seismic activity that has led to electing President Obama’s replacement



  7. BobM says:

    Well, pretty much direct north from me (in Lower Hutt ) is a large powerstation of some sort. I looked outside after the earthquake and saw bugger all. So if they were there they were relatively short lived.

  8. richard1941 says:

    Friedmand Freund of SETI Institute has shown that rocks under stress can generate current flow. It is the weirdest experiment I have ever seen, and makes no sense. However, Freund claims that such voltages and currents could be the source of atmospheric lights.

    Yeah, “Could be”.

  9. BobM says:

    Facing north in Lower Hutt you see a large electrical substation. And many power pylons.

  10. There are now about 80 videos internationally which show co-seismic lights, and there were 13 in the Hutt/Wellington region. This is objective evidence now adequate for some statistics, I have one published paper, one submitted, and two in preparation. Predominant colour is white secondarily blue and the latter is mostly Rayleigh Scattering from the white. Mechanism is still debated, but Freund’s work with much laboratory evidence has the best support.

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