The Light at the End of the Tunnel

There was an old lady called Wright
who could travel much faster than light.
She departed one day
in a relative way
and returned on the previous night.

I admit, that had nothing at all to do with the topic of this post. But it is sort of about light. And apparently it was Einstein’s favourite limerick. So it’s appropriate by default.

I read a rather fascinating article the other day on earthquake lights. What’s that, you ask? Exactly what it sounds like. I’ve heard of some weird earthquake science, but this is probably the most bizarre phenomenon I’ve encountered so far. Earthquake lights (EQL) are glows that appear in the sky before, after, or during earthquakes. Though they’ve been documented as far back as ancient Greece, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that they were caught on camera and conclusively accepted into the realm of science. The colour, range, and duration of documented lights ranges widely, although they have commonly been reported as white or blue.

b4548d435e1bPhotograph of the glow from Nagano, Japan (mid-1960s) (Photo: Earthquake Engineering Research Center, University of California, Berkeley)

Until recently, these phenomena have remained something of a scientific enigma. A new study, however, has finally proposed a plausible explanation for how these glows are produced. In the study, the authors looked at 65 documented events to try to determine a common denominator. What they found is that the majority of events were associated with earthquakes that occurred at faults or rift zones. Imagine two large slabs of rocky crust moving in opposite directions. Where they meet and slide against each other, pressure builds up and is released through earthquakes.

San_Andreas_Fault_Aerial_ViewAn aerial view of the San Andreas Fault

Faults are essentially large vertical or inclined ‘cracks’, often extending kilometers below the surface. These cracks can serve as conduits for charges to travel upwards from stress zones to the surface, where they interact with the atmosphere. As rocks deep below the surface are squeezed against each other, they are not only bent and fractured, but chemical bonds within them are broken on a molecular level. In the proper conditions, this can create ‘holes’ of electrical charge that travel upwards through the fault to the surface. In effect, the glow can be thought of as a weak form of lightning that comes not from the clouds but from beneath the ground.

This footage was recorded before the 2008 Sichuan, China earthquake and has since been verified as an EQL phenomenon

Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science

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Cover photo courtesy of Jesusisland, Flickr Creative Commons. Other images from Wikimedia Commons.


14 responses to “The Light at the End of the Tunnel

  1. I was so excited when I read the other day about earthquake lights. Having lived in San Francisco and experienced the 1989 earthquake, I read everything I could about them. One theory you might write about concerns how animals react before an earthquake. I wanted to see pictures of the lights, but hadn’t found anything satisfying until now – thank you for that wonderful video link!

  2. Interesting phenomenon. I was wondering….do earthquake lights provide any value as early warnings of pending earthquakes or are they too loosely connected with before/during/after quake times?

    • To the best of my knowledge, they are too rare a phenomena to have any reasonable predictive capacity. Even if a glow occurred long enough before an earthquake to allow for evacuation, it wouldn’t tell us anything about where/when/how exactly the earthquake will strike. Pam’s comment above re: animals as indicators might be an interesting avenue to look into.


    Natarajan VENKATANATHAN* and Vladimir NATYAGANOV**

    * (Corresponding author) Faculty of Physics, SASTRA University, Thirumalaisamudram, Thanjavur – 613 401,
    India. Tel. +919444807900;
    ** Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics, Moscow M.V. Lomonosov State University, Moscow, Russia.

    ABSTRACT: Outgoing Long wave Radiation (OLR) measurement, a satellite-based measurement can be used as an
    effective tool to identify the earthquake preparation zones. Atmospheric and surface phenomena like anomalous
    Outgoing Longwave Radiation (OLR) normally appear 5 to 30 days before the occurrence of moderate and big
    earthquakes. In this paper we present our preliminary analysis of a recent Peru earthquake that occurred on September
    25, 2013 with the magnitude of 7.0.

  4. Pingback: Lights in the Sky | Mostly Harmless·

  5. I am curious to find out what blog platform you have been working with?
    I’m experiencing some minor security problems with my
    latest site and I would like to find something more safe.

    Do you have any recommendations?

    • I’m using the Oxygen theme on the platform. Some glitches here and there, but haven’t had any security problems. WordPress is fairly easy to learn too. Hope that helps.

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