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Earthquakes and lights in the sky

by Mike Weaver

January 7, 2014

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It is not uncommon for folks in the skeptical/science community to examine claims of UFOs or aliens based upon sightings of lights in the sky. More often than not, these lights can be explained by normal, misidentified phenomenon such as planets, aircraft, stars, the moon, etc. There are, however, sightings which are not so easily explained. There have been persistent reports of lights seen before earthquakes through the years. Are these sightings legitimate? If so, how are they formed? Let’s take a look after the break.

A recent article on by Joseph Stromberg caught my eye. The article discusses a paper recently published in Seismologic Research Letters regarding lights in the sky and earthquakes. The source paper is behind a pay wall, but the article in the Smithsonian brings us the details.

Background information from the Smithsonian article:

For centuries, eyewitnesses have occasionally reported seeing an inexplicable phenomenon minutes before, during or after an earthquake: strange bright lights in the sky.

For much of modern history, these reports were considered apocryphal. It wasn’t until a series of photographs of strange lights snapped during a 1965 earthquake in Nagano, Japan"including the one below"that scientists acknowledged the validity of the phenomenon.

Why the lights appear is still a mystery, though there are several hypotheses offered, two of which are[1]:

  • Piezoelectric field generated by tectonic movement of rock which creates the lights via electrical discharge.

  • Pressure and stresses causing the rock to temporarily conduct electromagnetic energy leading to magnetic field disruptions and visual interactions with the ionosphere.

In a study recently published in Seismological Research Letters of the Seismological Society of America, Robert Thériault lead a team of researchers who attempted to solve the mystery of the earthquake lights via a new method. Thériault and his team gathered information from 65 earthquakes dating from 1600 forward which had reports of earthquake lights.

From the article:

“We built a pretty large database of earthquakes with earthquake lights that happened around the world,” says Thériault, a geologist with the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources. “And eventually, when we started to look at them, we found a really striking pattern.”

The team found that approximately 85 percent of earthquake lights occurred with earthquakes which were not associated with a tectonic plate boundary. The remaining sightings occurred on plate boundaries, however the majority of those were seen when the plates were sliding past each other (a transform fault). They also discovered that the lights appear far more often before or during the quake than afterwards. [1]

The team developed a new hypothesis for the earthquake lights in collaboration with Friedemann Freund of San Jose State University. Freund’s model, called the P Hole theory, proposes that the lights are caused by electrical effects in the rocks which can produce ionized oxygen.

From the article:

“The process starts deep in the crust, where rocks are subjected to high stress levels, prior to the stress being released to produce an earthquake,” Thériault says. In certain types of rock, Freund has shown in lab experiments, this stress can break apart pairs of negatively-charged oxygen atoms that are linked together in peroxy bonds.

When this happens, each of the oxygen ions are released, and these can flow through cracks in the rock, towards the surface. At that point, the thinking goes, high-density groups of these charged atoms will ionize pockets of air, forming a charged gas (a plasma) that emits light.

A lot of this is not new, the recent study, however, provides additional support for the P Hole hypothesis. I had not yet read anything about this and found it a fascinating read. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

Be well



by Mike Weaver

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