Weird lights appearing before earthquakes

Sometimes before an earthquake, strange bright orbs and glows are seen in the sky, like the scene visible in this video clip captured a half hour before the 2008 quake in Sichuan, China. You might think these are related to the UFOs that cause the quakes, but new research not only suggests a natural cause but also raises the possibility that the phenomena could be an indicator that a quake is coming. The scientists from Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and San Jose State University suggest that rocks under high stress deep underground release oxygen ions that eventually make their way to the surface, ionizing air pockets above ground and creating a light-emitting plasma.

“If you see visible lights in the sky, and you live in an earthquake-prone area, they might be an early-warning sign that an earthquake is approaching,” geologist Robert Thériault says.

More in Smithsonian: "Why Do Lights Sometimes Appear in the Sky During An Earthquake?"

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  1. The video is looking toward the sun, and the dispersion is clearly ring-shaped, so that's a parhelion.

  2. I work in mining. Years ago an old coal miner I was working with told me of "lightning flashes" he had observed whilst watch rock caving into a mined out area in an underground coal mine (I was never brave enough to stick around and actually watch the caving process, although experienced the noise and wind-blast from it on many occasions). My theory was that it was some sort of piezoelectric effect caused by high stresses in the rock being released as it fractured. There have also been cases where piezoelectric energy release has been suspected of igniting methane during caving.

    These mining induced rock movements are many orders of magnitude smaller than big earthquakes, of course. I see a relationship between rock stress and lights in the sky as being (almost) plausible. Not sure that I buy the physical migration of ions through the rocks, though. To me an electrostatic (where the charge migrates, rather than the physical ions) or electromagnetic transmission seems more likely.

    On a related note, some Chinese researchers came to our mine many years ago to conduct an experiment to help develop a system to locate underground spontaneous combustion (of which we, unfortunately, had plenty). Their system seemed to rely on the capture of ions that had somehow migrated to the surface. The theory was that the generation of these ions somehow correlated with hot rocks and coal. Who knows?

  3. Exactly. It looks like a part of parhelia called circumzenithal arc. If it was a plasma it should look more like aurora borealis - uniform in color. But since it has rainbow colors it is clearly a result of difraction on particles in atmosphere and not an plasma glowing discharge.

  4. Modern science supposes that electricity and magnetism is a "second-order" effect in the universe. In other words, where we see it, it was caused by other more fundamental forces. There are a surprising number of implications to this worldview -- one of them being that where we see E&M, it is assumed to be localized, as opposed to seeing a small leg of a much larger electrical circuit.

    Professional scientists hold to this worldview in spite of a number of observations:

    • We now observe magnetic fields associated with vast stretches of the universe. Astrophysicists and cosmologists go to enormous lengths to model these magnetic fields as though they are NOT the result of electric currents. This should bother people a lot more than it apparently does. We are often told that the magnetic fields are like "fossils", left behind from the Big Bang (um, ok, but is this a scientific claim? ...). The problem here is that we all know from high school physics that magnetic fields and electric currents tend to go hand-in-hand. In fact, that's a fundamental principle in Silicon Valley, where products absolutely depend upon it.
    • Plasma neutrality is oftentimes treated as though it's the same as condensed matter neutrality. This is a misnomer, and totally meaningless. There is no sense to talking about the movement of charges in collisionless gases as though we can apply the same exact principles as in condensed matter. Charge-neutrality in a plasma is specifically referred to as quasi-neutrality, and a charge-neutral plasma still conducts. See for clarification. There are many misconceptions associated with plasmas just like this one. People should take more time to carefully contemplate the concepts of physics -- especially when it comes to plasmas.
    • Plasma is the universe's dominant state of matter. But, the implication of that depends entirely upon your worldview. When it comes to the Earth, it's important to realize that we exist within a very thin shell of charge-neutrality. One need only go a surprisingly small number of miles up, and this drastically changes. This context should, in theory, matter to a rational person when they are formulating a view of E&M they see here at the surface of the planet.
    • People should pay very close attention to the Voyager data, as it's presumably going to help us to understand more about the electromagnetic features of interstellar space, outside the Sun's domain. Thus far, the data has generated surprises. It's important to note that radio astronomer, Gerrit Verschuur, has published a number of papers which document extremely filamentary regions of interstellar "HI" hydrogen. That is incredibly important, because that is what plasmas do when they are conducting electricity: We know a lot about plasmas conducting electricity from the laboratory, but much of this research is cloaked in secrecy because -- and many people still do not realize this -- plasmas are also the science of nuclear explosions. So, in a general sense, the public should expect some level of confusion with regards to our beliefs and the research on this subject. A safe guess is that this is not entirely a mistake.
    • E&M takes many, many forms, and as it jumps through various mediums, its appearance can change drastically. It's important to realize that our senses are not tuned to seeing all of these forms, and that certain forms of E&M require effort to observe. Somebody who just sits back and says, "Well, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence" will not specifically seek out the E&M, and they will waste a lot of peoples' time arguing with those who ARE seeking it out.
    • There are good ideas out there in the "fringes" of science, and many of them pertain to E&M. But, notice that it's still like the Wild West of concepts. There is no sense of order to the sea of models right now which compete with conventional science. What this means, in practical terms, is that it is basically impossible to size up many claims at the periphery of conventional science. In fact, the rational mind observes the inherent complexity of evaluating these claims, and it completely shuts down. We are still waiting for somebody to bring order to the sea of models which surrounds conventional science in such a way that it can be rationally engaged.
    • Another very intriguing aspect of plasmas is that they appear to scale over enormous magnitudes. In other words, as you think your way up to larger scales, you should be imagining something like a fractal. That's a really important aspect of the debate which I encourage people to think deeply about, as it creates questions about this notion that the E&M is localized.

    My own personal take, after digging into the subject, is that modern astrophysics and cosmology have staked a very risky bet that electric currents do not move through space, at public expense. If it turns out that they are wrong on this, then vast stretches of research are worthless. When certain arguments are put forward which ask questions that they are averse to asking themselves, professionals already know the inherent implications, and that is when the subconscious mind's threat level kicks in.

    If you do not believe it, see "AGAINST THE TIDE: A Critical Review by Scientists of How Physics and Astronomy Get Done"

    "Tom Van Flandern commented to us:

    I have taken aside several colleagues whose pet theories are now mainstream doctrine, and asked quizzically what it would mean to them personally if an alternative idea ultimately prevailed. To my initial shock (I was naïve enough that I did not see this coming), to a person, the individuals I asked said they would leave the field and do something else for a living. Their egos, the adulation they enjoy, and the satisfaction that they were doing something important with their lives, would be threatened by such a development. As I pondered this, it struck me that their vested interests ran even deeper than if they just had a financial stake in the outcome (which, of course, they do because of grants and promotions). So a challenger with a replacement idea would be naïve to see the process as anything less than threatening the careers of some now-very-important people, who cannot be expected to welcome that development regardless of its merit." (1 August 2002)

  5. I don't think oxygen ions can plausibly travel to such a height without reacting with something on the way, nor is it clear how or why they would be generated en masse by geological forces. UFOs would make more sense, which isn't saying much.

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