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.
The lights are reported to appear while an earthquake is occurring, although there are reports of lights before or after earthquakes, such as reports concerning the 1975 Kalapana earthquake. They are reported to have shapes similar to those of the auroras, with a white to bluish hue, but occasionally they have been reported having a wider color spectrum. The luminosity is reported to be visible for several seconds, but has also been reported to last for tens of minutes. Accounts of viewable distance from the epicenter varies: in the 1930 Idu earthquake, lights were reported up to 70 miles (110 km) from the epicenter. Earthquake lights were reportedly spotted in Tianshui, Gansu, approximately 400 kilometres (250 mi) north-northeast of the earthquake’s epicenter. During the 2007 Peru earthquake lights were seen in the skies above the sea and filmed by many people. The phenomenon was also observed and caught on film during the 2009 L’Aquila and the 2010 Chile earthquakes. Video footage has also recorded this happening during the 9 April 2011 eruption of Sakurajima Volcano, Japan. The phenomenon was also reported around the Amuri Earthquake in New Zealand, that occurred 1 September 1888. The lights were visible in the morning of 1 September in Reefton, and again on 8 September.
Hypotheses and Models
Research into earthquake lights is ongoing; as such, several mechanisms have been proposed.
Most recent model suggests that the generation of earthquake lights involves the ionization of oxygen to oxygen anions by breaking of peroxy bonds in some types of rocks by the high stress before and during an earthquake. After the ionisation, the ions travel up through the cracks in the rocks. Once they reach the atmosphere these ions can ionise pockets of air, forming plasma that emits light. Lab experiments have validated that some rocks do ionise the oxygen in them when subjected to high stress levels. Research suggests that the angle of the fault is related to the likelihood of earthquake light generation, with subvertical (nearly vertical) faults in rifting environments having the most incidences of earthquake lights.
A different explanation involves intense electric fields created piezoelectrically by tectonic movements of rocks containing quartz.
Another possible explanation is local disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field and/or ionosphere in the region of tectonic stress, resulting in the observed glow effects either from ionospheric radiative recombination at lower altitudes and greater atmospheric pressure or as aurora. However, the effect is clearly not pronounced or notably observed at all earthquake events and is yet to be directly experimentally verified.