Earthquake lights
May 20, 2008 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Until recently, earthquake lights were folklore. It wasn't until the phenomenon was captured in photographs, taken during the Matsushiro earthquake swarm in Japan between 1965 and 1967, that the seismological community acknowledged their occurrence. The precise mechanism is unknown. A stunning example was captured on video thirty minutes prior to the Sichuan earthquake.
posted by Pater Aletheias (66 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
They're caused by the dense neutrino rays coming from the alien spaceships which are triggering the earthquakes.
posted by PigAlien at 11:09 AM on May 20, 2008

Let me be the first to say: "Holy crap."
posted by steef at 11:12 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow, that's really spectacular. A religiously-minded populace could easily see this as a host of angels or something.

Another explanation involves intense electric fields created piezoelectrically by tectonic movements of rocks containing quartz

That was going to be my guess too. Daedalus had a scheme to generate electricity this way, though I think it was from the minute tidal movement of the crust rather than earthquakes per se.
posted by DU at 11:12 AM on May 20, 2008

I like the P-hole theory.

(insert joke about hitting the Pacific Rim)
posted by Kabanos at 11:16 AM on May 20, 2008

Amazing. I'm wondering how one could begin to study these things, beyond the speculation in the linked articles. Hang around earthquake zones with a spectrometer? Now that digital cameras are so ubiquitous, I wonder whether useful data can be extracted from RAW files?
The potential benefits of understanding phenomena that manifest before earthquakes are immense. Thanks for the post!
posted by nowonmai at 11:17 AM on May 20, 2008

Neat! Kind of weird thinking that these people are all "look at the neat clouds" and in a few minutes their asses were about to get shaken to pieces.
posted by GuyZero at 11:17 AM on May 20, 2008

A religiously-minded populace could easily see this as a host of angels or something.
I couldn't get everything the woman who made the video was saying, but she was speculating as to the cause and at one point joked it might be 佛光, the Buddha-light, also used to refer to the Brocken spectre often seen from the top of sacred Mount Emei.
posted by Abiezer at 11:20 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Raise your hand if you were expecting that YouTube video to end with the earthquake.
~Raises hand...looks around room to see who's on-board~
posted by Thorzdad at 11:21 AM on May 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

This expanded my world. Thanks.
posted by sy at 11:23 AM on May 20, 2008

thorzdad: I actually fast forwarded to see, heh.

That is really freaky and cool looking. I hope some dudes smarter then me can glean some knowledge from it.
posted by Mach5 at 11:26 AM on May 20, 2008

So when you see that, GTFO!
posted by Patapsco Mike at 11:28 AM on May 20, 2008

The earth is nothing if not considerate. She goes & gives you a nice, free laser show for your entertainment.

Before she later reaches up and hands you your ass.
posted by BobFrapples at 11:30 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

That youtube video looks nothing like "Earthquake lights" and everything like a prismatic effect of the sun shining on the clouds, possibly enhanced by a screen over the window or the camera's lens.

What do you want to bet that the Sun was somewhere around 22 degrees in the sky from those clouds?
posted by chimaera at 11:31 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wild. These were taken 450km from the epicenter, and the other video linked in the YouTube description was 550km away. There's a map showing the two locations, the epicenter, and aftershock epicenters also linked in the comments.
posted by ewagoner at 11:32 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's interesting how there are so many natural warnings about major planetary events that we don't know how to respond to.

Many are dismissed as irrelevant or useless by those who think they know better and then suddenly resurface as viable alerts.

Physical science and the cosmos: humbling humanity since we first peeped open our greedy little eyes.
posted by batmonkey at 11:34 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Artw at 11:39 AM on May 20, 2008

Interesting, though chimaera brings up an interesting point. Those don't look like any sundogs or polarizing effects to me, though.
posted by notsnot at 11:42 AM on May 20, 2008

Isn't that just cloud iridescence?
posted by brownpau at 11:42 AM on May 20, 2008

Wow, unsettling.
posted by fire&wings at 11:43 AM on May 20, 2008

Were it not for the USGS link I would have categorized this with ancient alien visitations and the Sasquatch, mainly due to it's occurrence before (as well as after) the earthquake... 30 minutes, or even three weeks!.

Perhaps it can lend credibility to the idea of animals predicting earthquakes.
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:43 AM on May 20, 2008

In Peru.
posted by fire&wings at 11:50 AM on May 20, 2008

This is cool.
And for once I found an interesting item in the YouTube comments:

weekendboredom (2 days ago)
hi my granfather was right!
he told me that if you see something in the sky in weird colors or the clouds start to look like hte scales of fish, there is a possiility of an earthquake

posted by rmless at 11:51 AM on May 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

This has been a great rat hole. I loved this treatment of the reports of a Volcano in North Carolina erupting during the New Madrid quake. I'd not heard that story before.
posted by ewagoner at 11:54 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have seen sundogs and irridescent clouds before. This was different.
posted by konolia at 11:54 AM on May 20, 2008

Reading the USGS link description of earthquake lights, at such a distance from the epicentre and given their appearance are the videos not not more likely showing iridescent clouds? The proximity in time to the earthquake perhaps made people make a connection.
posted by Abiezer at 11:54 AM on May 20, 2008

Heh, in just after an eyewitness shoots down my theory!
posted by Abiezer at 11:55 AM on May 20, 2008

Looks to me very much like the iridescence you can get when the sun's in just the right position to illuminate high clouds of ice crystals.

Abstract of: Cirrus cloud iridescence: a rare case study, Kenneth Sassen, Applied Optics, Vol. 42, Issue 3, pp. 486-491

"On the evening of 25 November 1998, a cirrus cloud revealing the pastel colors of the iridescence phenomenon was photographed and studied by a polarization lidar system at the University of Utah Facility for Atmospheric Remote Sensing (FARS). The diffraction of sunlight falling on relatively minute cloud particles, which display spatial gradients in size, is the cause of iridescence. According to the 14-year study of midlatitude cirrus clouds at FARS, cirrus rarely produce even poor iridescent patches, making this particularly long-lived and vivid occurrence unique. In this unusually high (13.2–14.4-km) and cold (−69.7 ° to −75.5°) tropopause-topped cirrus cloud, iridescence was noted from ~6.0° to ~13.5° from the Sun. On the basis of simple diffraction theory, this indicates the presence of particles of 2.5–5.5-μm effective diameter. The linear depolarization ratios of δ = 0.5 measured by the lidar verify that the cloud particles were nonspherical ice crystals. The demonstration that ice clouds can generate iridescence has led to the conclusion that iridescence is rarely seen in midlatitude cirrus clouds because populations of such small particles do not exist for long in the presence of the relatively high water-vapor supersaturations needed for ice-particle nucleation"

Even if this is what's on that video (and it should be possible to work out where the sun is relative to the cloud, given that the location and time are known), the question is how does an earthquake produce that sort of cloud.

posted by Devonian at 11:58 AM on May 20, 2008

They sure look like fire rainbows to me.

I've heard of earthquake lights before, and I am sure willing to believe there are such things, but these look like fire rainbows to me.
posted by edheil at 12:00 PM on May 20, 2008

Understanding the p-hole currents holds the key to deciphering pre-earthquake signals. ("When the earth speaks", a lecture by a NASA scientist on how the p-hole phenomenon may lead to a means of predicting earthquakes. Video and audio versions available.)
posted by beagle at 12:02 PM on May 20, 2008

Fire rainbows look like that, but are generally high altitude cirrus clouds. I've seen those many times, and they're a treat, no doubt. The clouds in the video were low altitude and not cirrus.
posted by ewagoner at 12:06 PM on May 20, 2008

And, an article on earthquake prediction co-authored by the same NASA scientist (Friedemann Freund), and a rebuttal.
posted by beagle at 12:08 PM on May 20, 2008

I never expected to make this same comment twice the same day, but

don't forget about earthquake clouds
posted by daHIFI at 12:10 PM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection....
posted by weston at 12:14 PM on May 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

So, just out of curiosity, let's say I see something just like that in the sky. Then my animals all freak out. What could I do to prepare for an earthquake in ten minutes, anyway?

All I can think of is rigging my video camera in some sort of sling. And, you know, sobbing.
posted by MrVisible at 12:15 PM on May 20, 2008

Those don't seem to be what most people mean when they talk about 'earthquake lights'. See Fire&Wings' comment above, or these (lower-quality) videos:
One (50 seconds in)
Two (30 seconds in)
Three (10 seconds in)
They're flashes of light on the night horizon, and look to be a completely different phenomenon than prismatic clouds.
posted by echo target at 12:17 PM on May 20, 2008

Those links (and a bit more information) from this page
posted by echo target at 12:19 PM on May 20, 2008

FWIW, the Wikipedia entry linked in the FPP contains the following note:
On May 12, 2008, 30 minutes prior to the Sichuan Earthquake, a cell phone captured footage of multi-colored clouds in the sky (see external link below). The footage was uploaded to Youtube[3]. However, what the footage shows is just a circumhorizontal arc, which is caused by refraction of the sun's light through ice particles in a cirrus cloud, and is similar to a rainbow.
(Emphasis mine)
posted by kcds at 12:24 PM on May 20, 2008

Iridescent clouds != EQ Lights.
posted by elpapacito at 12:29 PM on May 20, 2008

kcds: That text was just edited to say that. Maybe by one of us?
posted by ewagoner at 12:36 PM on May 20, 2008

This is crazy. How have I gone so long without knowing about these?
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 12:39 PM on May 20, 2008

Refracted light. ...gases?
posted by popcassady at 12:42 PM on May 20, 2008

I only looked at the third one in your list, echo target, but the flashes around 10-seconds in on that one I would wager are exploding transformers -- you can see all the lights go out in the neighborhood for a couple seconds after the second, brighter one.

And I'm standing by my original comment that these are iridescent clouds. It's totally a prismatic effect and for one reason or another is enhanced in the video.
posted by chimaera at 12:54 PM on May 20, 2008

ewagoner: Its a conspiracy to cover up the truth and kcds is in on it!
posted by PigAlien at 1:01 PM on May 20, 2008

Why are people so quick to assume that there wouldn't be atmospheric effects immediately prior to an earthquake? It's a bit odd that people associate "complete unwillingness to admit the possibility of any unknown phenomenon at all" with a rational and scientific outlook.

Science feeds on curiosity, not small-minded contrarianism.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:14 PM on May 20, 2008 [4 favorites]

I have no problem considering the possibility of previously unknown phenomena, but when I see one bit of fluffy clouds with rainbow patterns being sold as "Earthquake lights" immediately next to another video with bright blue flashes against a night sky being billed as the same, let me just say that that sort of thing kinda pins my skeptic-o-meter, y'know?
posted by chimaera at 1:21 PM on May 20, 2008

Understandable, but it's a question of terminology. I doubt the flashes are anything other than transformers; but the clouds don't resemble iridescent clouds I've seen.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:22 PM on May 20, 2008

Kind of weird thinking that these people are all "look at the neat clouds" and in a few minutes their asses were about to get shaken to pieces.

Reminds me of the Tsunami footage where the beachgoers all marveled at the how the shoreline had receded, and then...
posted by stargell at 1:25 PM on May 20, 2008

posted by caddis at 1:39 PM on May 20, 2008

the lights in peru look like exploding transformers.
posted by jessssse at 2:01 PM on May 20, 2008

Just FYI on this one:

1. Science does finally admit the existence of earthquake lights and similar effects.

2. The overall mechanism is unclear, but it's almost certainly some variety of the piezoelectric effect, where crystalline structures respond to pressure by generating an electrical voltage.

3. This video doesn't appear to show earthquake lights.

4. There are other reported effects, some of which are quite likely legit (like animal effects) and others which are probably coincidences.

5. The difficulty with the science is of course you can't get the earth to quake on demand.

A nice discussion is here.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:29 PM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I've seen exploding transformers before. It was very weird. This bright blue light outside my window and loud hissing noise, then all the power was out for blocks. A bunch of people were outside wandering around. Kind of interesting.
posted by delmoi at 3:18 PM on May 20, 2008

That's both incredibly creepy and really cool.

Thanks for this!
posted by Gular at 3:19 PM on May 20, 2008

I once watched an excellent documentary about the earthquake light phenomenon in which they squished rock in a very large hydraulic press and filmed the process with a very high speed camera. Sure, enough, a few inches from the surface of the stressed rock there appeared little electric balls and flashes in mid-air. They considered these to be caused piezo-electrically (as lupus_yonderboy mentions, above) and a possible explanation for earthquake lights.
posted by bz at 3:22 PM on May 20, 2008

popcassady : Refracted light. ...gases?

*flashes neuralyzer*

The flash of light you saw in the sky was not an earthquake light. Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus.
posted by quin at 3:34 PM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

And just like after she heard
the word iridescent
everything was iridescent for a while
posted by bwg at 3:47 PM on May 20, 2008

I came very close to posting this myself; I've been collecting some of the same links for several days now...

While I'd like very much to believe that we may indeed be seeing "EQ" lights, the RGBIV banding concerned me, and being the skeptic that I am, realized that we might be seeing a coincidental rainbow effect of some sort. I was still in the process of trying to eliminate that possibility from my mind before I posted this.

At this point I can add a few links; the Vogel Study, is run by a Seattle man named David Akers, whom I've talked to. I learned about Akers and his study through an older book by Greg Long, now known more for his book claiming the Patterson Bigfoot film is a hoax.

I've spent time at the viewing center at Marfa Texas, waiting for the famous "mystery lights" but my wait was in vain.

Part of the problem with all this is that you have a number of connected phenomena, some of which go well into the "woo" zone; UFO's, "orbs", ghosts and such. I suspect that this element is enough of a deterrent to dissuade many legitimate geophysicists from investigating.

If what we see in the Chinese video is indeed an "earthquake light", it might be similar to an aurora, which is a plasma. Part of my interest in all of this is that I discovered that carbon fiber veil is probably the best material with which to create microwave oven plasma.
posted by Tube at 4:40 PM on May 20, 2008

I knew absolutely nothing about this subject. MetaFilter is educational. Thanks, Pater Aletheias!
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 4:42 PM on May 20, 2008

Why are people so quick to assume that there wouldn't be atmospheric effects immediately prior to an earthquake?

Amen. It makes a helluva lot more sense to postulate that there would be effects in other elements of the environment than to postulate that there wouldn't.
posted by mediareport at 6:39 PM on May 20, 2008

OK. I'm officially freaked out.
posted by Vavuzi at 8:48 PM on May 20, 2008

After reading the related wikipedia article on "earthquake clouds" I'd say they're a more believable indicator than these strange lights. From what I've seen on the web today, these "earthquake lights" look like they're caused either by light diffraction or exploding transformers. Those cloud formations, on the other hand, look like the result of low frequency pressure waves interacting with the atmosphere. If I see the latter you can be sure I'll be spending lots of time outdoors well away from buildings, just like I'd be heading for high ground if the ocean line suddenly recedes.
posted by waxboy at 10:58 PM on May 20, 2008

After looking at the "fire rainbow" photographs, and then the other "10 minutes before" video, it's obvious that these videos show rare rainbows, not "earthquake lights".

Note the color bands; red on top, yellow in the middle, green at the bottom.

In other news, Bigfoot's "butt print" was actually made by an elk...
posted by Tube at 11:16 PM on May 20, 2008

I've seen a lot of clouds and weird lights in the sky from Florida to Quebec... I've seen fire cloud rainbows, regular rainbows from all angles, auroras, sun dogs, moon dogs, false sunrises, and even the "green flash" at sunset - and what was on the tape was none of the above. Gonna need to see footage of similar clouds showing similar behavior in other circumstances before I buy the "sun shining on clouds" explanation. It's weird stuff.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:52 AM on May 21, 2008

Actually, looking at the second video, that's completely a rainbow, no question, adn I've seen more than a few like that myself. That means the first one is probably one as well, but still weird.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:55 AM on May 21, 2008

According to USGS article in the OP, earthquake lights are mostly white to bluish flashes or glows lasting several seconds. Cleary not what is shown in the posted video.

However, the clouds in the video have a very close resemblance to Circumhorizontal Arcs, AKA fire rainbows

Seems like it was just a coincidence. Still pretty cool though.
posted by wigglin at 2:41 AM on May 21, 2008

I've seen transformer/power line arcing during tropical storms and hurricanes in Florida, and the color, way it lights up the sky, pulsing pattern, and total duration are exactly the same. On occasion they also show up in hues ranging from violet to orange, but most of the time it's more blue/indigo like in these videos. Given that the third video has a simultaneous power blackout, I'd have to weigh pretty heavily on the hypothesis that the lights in the three Peru videos is probably transformers or power lines arcing.

As to the fire rainbows, I've seen those in Florida as well. They are pretty rare, but I can recall seeing them on at least two occasions in the past 3 years. I have to admit though that if they are equally rare in China, then it's quite a coincidence they appear right before a major earthquake.
posted by joquarky at 1:36 PM on May 21, 2008

For those interested, the Bad Astronomer has a post up on his blog about the lights.
posted by wigglin at 12:35 AM on May 23, 2008

« Older Kids? Who'd have 'em?   |   I Feel Beneath The White There is a Burundi Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments