For centuries, observers have been claiming that they see strange lights shortly before or during earthquakes, and in the modern era, such claims have been roundly rejected as superstitious, just like beliefs that earthquakes were scourges sent by G-d. But, it turns out, we were actually wrong on this one (the lights, not the scourge thing). Researchers have determined that earthquake lights, as they’re known, are 100% real, and they have a very logical scientific explanation.
Score one for ancient societies, apparently.
Here’s what happens: sometimes, people in an earthquake zone later report that immediately before or during a quake, they saw a strange glowing light. Sometimes the reports are more colorful, as in the case of a man who reported a ball of light that startled his dog in 1727. Given the turmoil that accompanies earthquakes, scientists were skeptical about such reports, but researchers decided to start cataloging every credible report, to determine if there was a common link that might explain earthquake lights.
What they found was that this intriguing natural phenomenon does appear to be real, and it happens in what are known as rift zones, where the Earth’s crust is pulling apart. What may be happening is that as rocks grind against each other during the stress of the quake, they create electrical charges, which glow when they interact with the atmosphere after they rise through the Earth’s crust. The result can be a soft glowing light, as reported by many observers, but it could also be a phenomenon like a ball or thread of light, also described in some reports.
It’s always fascinating to see something that has long been associated with superstition and fringe science put to the test like this, and earthquake lights made a challenging test case because there is no way to perform a controlled experiment with them. Instead, the researchers had to look at documentation, reports, news coverage and discussion of events surrounding earthquakes, and then sift through it to determine what constituted valid data.
They noted that many people report such lights in advance of earthquakes, sometimes more than an hour before, and that some observers have successfully evacuated to safety after heeding the warning of earthquake lights. This demonstrates the possibility of using the lights as an early warning system, allowing people to get out of homes and dangerous structures before a quake happens and evacuate in an orderly fashion. Now that this research has been published, it also encourages other seismologists to explore the subject, and may lead to better collation of data associated with future earthquake events.
If this wasn’t fascinating enough for you, here’s yet another upside to finally understanding more about earthquake lights: it’s possible they may be responsible for many a UFO sighting. Descriptions of UFOs typically involve a strange light or lights in the sky that may seem to travel very rapidly and disappear equally quickly. Now that we know more about how earthquake lights work, it’s easy to see how a display of lights from the Earth could be mistaken for a UFO.
Photo credit: UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences.