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Earthquake Lights: A follow up

by Mike Weaver

January 14, 2014

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I received some feedback regarding my recent posting regarding earthquake lights. Based upon this feedback, it seemed appropriate to do a follow-up piece regarding whether or not there is actually a proven phenomenon called earthquake lights. This seems to be a reasonable approach. It is best to prove that there is a phenomenon before we rush to hypotheses as to what causes it.

When researching something like this, I use Wikipedia as my first stop. Hold the scolding replies for a moment, please. I use the Wikipedia article’s references as my launch pad to find good sources of information. The article itself can also give clues as to good places to look as well as a thumbnail sketch as to the prevailing opinions on the subject (note that this isn’t very reliable). The article on earthquake lights offers this synopsis at the top:

An earthquake light is an unusual luminous aerial phenomenon that reportedly appears in the sky at or near areas of tectonic stress, seismic activity, or volcanic eruptions. Once commonly challenged, it was not until photographs were taken during the Matsushiro earthquake swarm in Nagano, Japan (which occurred from 1965 through 1967) that the seismology community acknowledged their occurrence.

It appears that the existence of earthquake lights was, and possibly still is, disputed but evidence from the Matsushiro earthquakes was good enough to convince some scientists. Chasing that down lead to the photo archives at Berkeley which contained a number of photographs from the earthquake swarm. Thumbnails are viewable here, full images require login: One, two, three.

Digging further into documented earthquake lights events reveals the following published reports:

There are a lot of observations documented in seemingly respectable publications. This, to my layman’s eye, increases my belief that there may be a real phenomenon.

In fact, looking through scholarly works related to earthquake lights, one finds a significant number of papers discussing theories and hypotheses as to the source of the lights, not whether or not they exist. Take a look with a Google Scholar search, here.

Possibly the most interesting thing I read while looking into this was an article published on January 2nd 2014 in by Alexandra White; Earthquake Lights linked to rift zones. The article discusses the issues with earthquake light research due to the entanglement of legitimate reports with fringe science[2].

The most fascinating part of this article is the comments. Do please read them. Start at the bottom and work up. The comments are refereed and are of high quality. Note the debate between many scientists including one of the authors of the paper I cited last week, Friedemann Freund. The significant point of debate isn’t about the reality of the lights but whether or not the occur before or during the earthquake. In other words, can they be used to predict earthquakes.

This is science in progress and delightful to read.

Be well.

[1]Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, Vol. 63, No. 6, 2177-2187



by Mike Weaver

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