The Enduring Mystery of Earthquake Lights – What Makes a Miracle?

A photograph showing an earthquake light - a rainbow cloud, taken in May 2008, in the region of Sichuan, China.Earthquake Lights in the Sky

Mysterious flashes of light and clear-sky lightning, blue flames?  Glowing orbs and fireballs?  Will-o’-the-wisps?  Stand-alone rainbow clouds and light pillars?  How could this be…?

Scientists in the United States now say that earthquake lightning flashes appearing to precede earthquakes, are likely to be sparked by movements within the ground below.  This phenomenon could be used to trigger alarms and help warn millions of an impending danger…

According to the Encyclopedia of Solid Earth Geophysics, the earliest known account of earthquake lights dates back to 373 BCE, when the Greek cities of Helice and Buris were destroyed by an earthquake accompanied by “immense columns of fire”.

Historical witness testimonies of the rare and little understood natural phenomenon of “earthquake lights” have been recorded for 300 years, but most were typically dismissed by scientists as hearsay, or fodder for UFO enthusiasts and other conspiracy theorists.

A twilight photograph showing the sky in the area around Mount Kimyo on September 26, 1966, during the Matsushiro quake in Japan.
Earthquake Light in the Area around Mount Kimyo during the Matsushiro Quake Japan (September 26, 1966)

The origins of earthquake lights have long been an intriguing mystery for seismologists and their existence remained unconfirmed until they were first captured on film in the 1960s.  The seismology community eventually acknowledged the phenomenon occurrence after photographs taken during the Matsushiro earthquake swarm in Nagano, Japan (which occurred from 1965 through 1967), provided a distinct correlation between the aftershock events and the earthquake lights.

With the advent of YouTube and other social networks, sightings of “clear-sky lightning“, rainbow cloudsglowing orbs and light pillars have been captured and shared worldwide, then analysed and confirmed by scientists.  A trove of photographic and digital evidence now exists to vouch for the veracity of those rare events.


Mysterious Light Orbs at Fukushima

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.  Such atmospheric phenomena may occur before an earthquake when tiny drops of water produced in an electric field do not develop  into earthquake fogs or clouds but scatter light.  When those drops of water  move, it can make stars look like falling stars.

Unidentified glowing objects were spotted moments before major quakes in China.

Videos of luminous orbs seen during the Fukushima tsunami were widely shared online.

In this YouTube video of “UFOs” Orbs at Sendai during the Japanese Tsunami of March 11, 2011, we can definitely see something bright that appears to be floating over the incoming wreckage.  And it is unlikely to be a piece of debris as it is moving randomly, almost hopping, against the flow of the tsunami.  Is it a light artefact?  The shadow of an aircraft?  A wandering bird?  An angel…?

It might be an earthquake light.

The lights can take “many different shapes, forms, and colours,” says study author Friedemann Freund, a professor of physics at San Jose State University and senior researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Centre.

Freund says common forms of earthquake lights include:

    • bluish flames that appear to come out of the ground at ankle height,
    • orbs of light, called ‘ball lightning‘, that float in the air for tens of seconds or even minutes, and
    • quick flashes of bright light that resemble regular lightning strikes, except they come out of the ground instead of the sky and can stretch up to 200 metres (about 650 feet).


Earthquake Lights at L’Aquila

Earthquake lights were recorded in details before and during the 2009 earthquake at L’Aquila in Italy recently.  Many people reported ‘peculiar sightings of light glows, flashes, lightning, flames and fireballs‘, all of which were considered as candidates for earthquake light.

Many luminous events were observed before and after the main shock without the ground shaking and were very similar to those reported from previous earthquakes at L’Aquila.


Overall, 241 luminous phenomena were documented including photos and videos.

At least 99 of those luminous phenomena occurred before the main shock and other strong events of the seismic sequence.  Globular lights, luminous clouds and diffused light were more frequent before the quakes.  Flashes were observed during the main shock.  Electrical discharges and flames were observed principally after the main shock.

These ‘flickers’ could be triggered by the sudden shifting of entire soil layers, which can generate huge electrical charge, say scientists.

A team from Rutgers University, New Jersey, announced their latest findings at the American Physical Society meeting in Denver, Colorado.  Using a tub of plain kitchen flour, they discovered an entirely new physical phenomenon:

Electrical spikes of 100 volts or more can result when a crack opens and closes in a bed of powder.


A picture from Troy Shinbrot's experiment showing the powder crack and the arising voltage simultaneously recorded at Rutgers University.Investigating Earthquake Lights in the Lab

Troy Shinbrot and Theodore Tsui of Rutgers University in the US have taken a decidedly different approach to the matter.  They are looking to granular physics to provide a possible explanation of earthquake lights, suggesting that the shifting and “cracking” of materials in the ground around a geological fault could be the cause.

Shinbrot and Tsui have been carrying out a variety of experiments using flour and other granular materials and studying the electrical signals such systems exhibit if they are put through the same sorts of flow, jamming and slip events that occur in earthquake zones.  The various granular systems all developed electrical charges at levels that cannot be explained with known physical mechanisms, according to Shinbrot.

Professor Shinbrot explains:

“We took a tupperware container filled with flour, tipped it back and forth until cracks appeared, and it produced 200 volts of charge.  There isn’t a mechanism I know that can explain this.  It seems to be new physics!”

“Our first suspicion was this has got to be a mistake.  There must be something stupid we are doing.”

But there wasn’t…  Repeat experiments with other granular materials produced the same voltage phenomenon.

“It is quite surprising to us,” said Shinbrot, “to get hundreds of volts by the very low stress, small-scale experiments, essentially consisting of tipping a bed of flour.”  He went on to explain that they saw a peak in the voltage each time a crack opened up or closed in the flour in one experiment. 

Another experiment showed them that voltage spikes coincided with a slip event in a material and that the voltage magnitude grew with the spread of such events.  A third granular shear experiment carried out using large polymeric discs also saw the same voltage peaks coinciding with slip events, but further let the researchers conclude that the voltages traced the surfaces of the grains and not their bulk properties.

Hence the internal grain material is not so much the issue as each grain’s surface area and the possible slip-sliding motions that may occur, meaning that the grain surfaces may have a major role to play.  Some of Tsui’s experiments are looking into the importance, if any, of the size of a particle in granular charging and he found that size really does not matter!

Shinbrot’s first aim is to understand the flour experiment – what is this new, unknown mechanism which generates voltage in the powder cracks?

This is not what you typically think of as ‘static’ – it’s not like rubber shoes against a nylon carpet.  This is two layers of exactly the same material rubbing against each other, and generating voltage.

“How is this happening? Your guess is as good as mine.  I think the reason that no-one has reported this before is that no-one has thought to look.”


Natural Voltage Fields

Shinbrot and Tsui hope that their experiments could help towards developing a new theory to explain charging in granular material, while also paving the way  to coming up with a means to pinpoint the epicentre of an earthquake.

If the same phenomenon occurs along geological faultlines, sliding and cracking of soil grains could be generating millions of volts of electrostatic charge.  In turn, this phenomenon could potentially seed lightning in the air above – creating a natural “early-warning system” for impending earthquakes.

A photograph showing light pillars at Tampere in Finland.
Light Pillars at Tampere, Finland

Not every major earthquake is preceded by lightning.  And not all clear-sky lightning is followed by earthquakes.  “We want to know – why does this lightning appear sometimes but not others?” said Prof Shinbrot.

To understand better the correlation, scientists in Turkey have erected towers that measure voltage fields in the air over earthquake-prone regions.

“They’ve found there do seem to be precursors for some large earthquakes – magnitude 5 or higher.  But the voltage signal is not always the same.  Sometimes it’s high and sometimes it’s low.  Clearly there is a lot yet to be understood.”


Preventing Loss of Life from an Earthquake

An earthquake alarm system has been proposed, based on a video-sensing network designed to capture earthquake light and provide a warning if observations match threshold characteristics preceding a main shock.

Earthquakes that caused the greatest loss of life, while powerful, were deadly either because of their proximity to heavily populated areas, or because they occurred under the ocean bed, where earthquakes often create tsunamis that can devastate communities thousands of kilometres away.  The regions most at risk for great loss of life, include those where earthquakes are relatively rare but powerful, as well as poor regions with lax, unenforced or non-existent seismic building codes.

Detailed statistics on the size and frequency of earthquakes is available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  A recent increase in the number of major earthquakes has been noted, which could be explained by a cyclical pattern of periods of intense tectonic activity, interspersed with longer periods of low-intensity.

Many methods have been developed for predicting the time and place in which earthquakes will occur.  Yet, despite considerable research efforts by Earth scientists, scientifically reproducible predictions cannot yet be made to a specific day, or even month.  However, where well-understood faults are concerned, the probability that a segment may rupture during the next few decades can be estimated.

Earthquake warning systems have been developed that can provide regional notification of an earthquake in progress, but before the ground surface has begun to move, potentially allowing people within the system’s range to seek shelter before the earthquake’s impact is felt.

  • The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami claimed around 230,000 lives.
  • The 2005 Kashmir earthquake caused 100,000 confirmed deaths.
  • The 2008 Great Sichuan earthquake took 87,587 lives.
  • The 2010 Haiti earthquake claimed about 159,000 lives.
  • The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that affected the Fukushima and Sendai regions, wrecked 15,884 lives, and 2,633 people were declared missing.  The aftermath of the event continues to pose major environmental pollution and reconstruction challenges for Japan.

With the rapid growth of mega-cities such as Mexico City, Tokyo and Tehran, in areas of particularly high seismic risk, seismologists have been warning that a single quake could claim the lives of up to 3 million people.  Technology arising from the understanding of this “new” type of physics could be used to help warn millions of an imminent danger…

It’s time to innovate.


So… What about Miracles?

A photographic collage showing an earthquake rainbow cloud and two historical photographs taken during the "Miracle at Fatima".The Miracle of the Sun was an event which occurred on 13 October 1917, attended by 30,000 to 100,000 people gathered near Fátima, Portugal.  Several newspaper reporters were in attendance and they took testimony from many people who claimed to have witnessed extraordinary solar activity. 

It’s always puzzled me.  The photographic evidence of the time is unclear, and it is difficult to draw precise conclusions from it.  But 100,000 people can’t be wrong.  I believe they did see something.

At L’Aquila, many luminous events were reported without the ground shaking.  So, I can’t help but wonder if the luminous phenomenon that took place at Fátima could be indicative of signs of potential seismic activity that might have gone unrecorded at the time.

You can’t quite explain it, but it’s just always been there.


Either way, the real miracle will be understanding more about the physical phenomenon of earthquake lights, and using this new information to ward off further loss of lives…


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