Earthquake Lights: The Mystery Solved?

 

cold-heart-attacks_12014 has come in with a bang; in some places louder than others.  In some parts of North America –central Canada and northeastern US for instance – have experienced a deep freeze over the past few days.  News outlets excitedly stated yesterday, that temperatures in Winnipeg, Manitoba dropped to -37.6◦ Celsius on New Year’s Eve, and then rose to a still rather chilly -31◦, both temperatures are, as news outlets reported, colder than the average temperature on Mars, which is -29◦ C.  Much of central and eastern Canada is in the grips of a cold snap the likes of which haven’t been seen in nearly 80 years, while parts of Australia are battling a severe heat wave, bringing temperatures there to an incredible 50◦ C.  This world we live on is certainly putting our climate control technologies to the test.

Despite the somewhat uninformed denial of a good number of people, global warming is now a feature of our lives and we will continue to see extremes in regional weather going forward.  Though, it’s not all bad, at least if you’re interested in weird natural phenomenon.

21035445Police in Guelph, Ontario (Canada) have been receiving numerous calls for assistance from people in the area reporting strange and loud sounds outside their homes.  Police responded, but in most cases found nothing suspicious, until they figured out what was happening.  As a result of the relatively fast temperature drop in the area over the last few days, from a balmy (for Canadian’s anyway) -5◦ C to the current record low temperatures, much of the ground water and soil moisture has frozen solid, going down anywhere from four to six feet below the surface.

This ground freezing, which happens every year, but not usually so quickly, has given rise to what geologists call cryoseism, or in layman’s terms: frost-quakes.[1]

Apparently what happens in cryoseism is that water seeps into the ground during the warmer temperature periods, between rocks and sediment, and then (obviously) freezes when the temperature drops.  Though as we know, when water freezes it expands (something science still can’t explain by the way), and this expansion puts huge amounts of stress on the rock and soil, which results in a small and localised earthquake-like event, wherein the ground shifts suddenly producing a loud booming sound.

Northerners are, with few exceptions, quite familiar with the sounds of winter.  Crunching snow under your feet and under car tires, whistling winds, cracking ice, but frost-quakes are something new to most of us.  This phenomenon can actually be a danger to the foundation of some homes, as when the ground shifts, the immense pressures involved can crack cement foundation walls, though there is little that can be done to guard against it.  And in the world of earthquakes, there are bigger concerns to worry about.

805131544121002-ss1Earthquakes are one of the most powerful and devastating natural events that occur on this planet, and they’re certainly not limited to this planet.  Billions of dollars in damage are recorded throughout the world every year as a result of earthquakes, and as yet there is no way to accurately predict when or where an earthquake will strike.  Some scientists are working on that though.

As reported in this post from 2009 titled Earthquake Lights: A Ground Breaking Mystery, it has been known for some time, by enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists alike, that earthquakes have the ability to create some fairly weird effects in the environment, and earthquake lights are one of those effects.  They are just as they might seem, mysterious lights that appear in the sky above or around areas where earthquakes are imminent or occurring.  Early theories suggested that the lights were the product of alien influence on earthquakes, or perhaps a side effect of the infamous earthquake weapon developed by the now defunct HAARP, but it turns out there is a perfectly natural explanation (imagine that!).

Mt. Kimjo Earthquake Lights

Mt. Kimjo Earthquake Lights

According to a study published January 4, 2014 in the journal Seismological Research Letters, a group of researchers have identified and documented 65 examples of verified earthquake light from the 1600’s until present day.  The cases cited come from all over the world, but the paper suggests that true earthquake lights are a relatively rare occurrence and require a very specific geological formation in the earthquake zone.[2]

Essentially what happens is that lateral pressures in the ground just prior to or during an event, cause certain types of rock to abrade, which in turn causes an exchange or build-up of electrical charges.  Eventually this build-up of electricity discharges into the environment in a plasma state which is seen as light in the sky.

“When a powerful seismic wave runs through the ground and hits a layer of such rocks, it compresses the rocks with great pressure and speed, creating conditions under which large amounts of positive and negative electrical charges are generated.”

This is likened to lightning, but the electrical charge involved is likely much lower than a typical lightning discharge.

Some in the geological community are hopeful that this research will yield opportunities for predicting earthquakes in certain parts of the world, though others suggest that this sentiment is more than premature.  The phenomenon remains somewhat rare, as mentioned, which is a feature of the special geological conditions necessary to produce the effect.  This requirement for a perfect storm of pressures and rock types means that it wouldn’t be typical of the majority of earthquake events, and therefore would do little to help predict events outside of those parameters.

This revelation does put to rest some of the old arguments about outside influences, malevolent intentions and fanciful conspiracy, though there’s certain to be some who cling to the idea that earthquake lights are the by-product of some super-secret technology.  Further research will, hopefully, provide ever clearer and more useful information regarding the mechanics of earthquakes and the conditions that lead to them.



[1] The Kitchener Record. Police determine large banging noises to be ice breaking. TheRecord.com: http://www.therecord.com/news-story/4298655-police-determine-large-banging-noises-to-be-ice-cracking/

[2] Sharon Hill. New paper on earthquake lights show they are a reality. DoubtfulNews.com: http://doubtfulnews.com/2014/01/new-paper-on-earthquake-lights-show-they-are-a-reality/

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Martin J. Clemens

I also blog at at Mysterious Universe!
Writer, Canadian, Fortean Addict...and lover of science and history. "As for me...I know only, that I know nothing..."
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