Two possible explanations of mysterious earthquake lights

Centuries of humans have reported strange lights moving along the ground before an earthquake strikes. Now, two different teams of scientists have two competing theories that could explain where those lights come from and how they're made.

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  1. There's a third possible explanation ...

    In the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 37–71, 2003, there is an excellent report that addresses the more down-to-earth problems facing geophysicists trying to understand earthquakes. The paper is titled, Rocks That Crackle and Sparkle and Glow: Strange Pre-Earthquake Phenomena, by Dr. Friedemann T. Freund, a professor in the Department of Physics, San Jose State University, and a senior researcher at NASA Ames Research Center. Dr. Freund writes:

    Many strange phenomena precede large earthquakes. Some of them have been reported for centuries, even millennia. The list is long and diverse: bulging of the Earth’s surface, changing well water levels, ground-hugging fog, low frequency electromagnetic emission, earthquake lights from ridges and mountain tops, magnetic field anomalies up to 0.5% of the Earth’s dipole field, temperature anomalies by several degrees over wide areas as seen in satellite images, changes in the plasma density of the ionosphere, and strange animal behavior. Because it seems nearly impossible to imagine that such diverse phenomena could have a common physical cause, there is great confusion and even greater controversy.”

    Freund outlines the basic problem:

    “Based on the reported laboratory results of electrical measurements, no mechanism seemed to exist that could account for the generation of those large currents in the Earth’s crust, which are needed to explain the strong EM signals and magnetic anomalies that have been documented before some earthquakes. Unfortunately, when a set of observations cannot be explained within the framework of existing knowledge, the tendency is not to believe the observation. Therefore, a general malaise has taken root in the geophysical community when it comes to the many reported non-seismic and non-geodesic pre-earthquake phenomena. There seems to be no bona fide physical process by which electric currents of sufficient magnitude could be generated in crustal rocks.”

    Freund makes an excellent attempt to explain all of the phenomena in terms of rock acting like a p-type semi-conducting material when placed under stress. Normally rock is a good insulator. For example, the emission of positive ions from the Earth’s surface may act as nuclei for the ground-hugging fog that sometimes occur prior to earthquake activity. And although the surface potential may only be in the 1–2-Volt range, the associated electric field across a thin surface layer can reach hundreds of thousands of volts per centimeter, enough to cause corona discharges, or “earthquake lights.” Thermal anomalies seen from space before an earthquake may be due to the emission of infra-red light where the semi-conductor charge recombines at the surface. Disturbed animal behavior may be due to the presence of positive ions in the air.

    As Freund says, this theory places an explanation in the realm of semiconductor physics


    Note that this inference subtly differs from those in the article, as a semiconductor inference is only meaningful if it relates to a current which is traveling from one conductor to another through an insulating layer. In this case, space and the Earth's core would be the conductors, and the Earth's surface layer would be semiconducting. So, it involves questioning the claim that space is electrically neutral -- and that turns out to be a very important question to ask.

  2. One of the things which happens when a person starts to investigate electrical cosmology is they start to appreciate the danger of the inferential step. Up until this point, a person would feel comfortable with pointing to Occam's Razor to justify the debunking of that which contradicts established theory. With an awareness of alternative hypotheses/assumptions/worldview, on the other hand, it becomes apparent that there are almost always multiple explanations for any particular observation.

    It's almost comical. Take a look at this ...

    NEW DELHI: Ants know when an earthquake is about to strike, researchers have discovered. Their behavior changes significantly prior to the quake and they resume normal functioning only a day after it.

    Gabriele Berberich of the University Duisburg-Essen in Germany presented these findings on Thursday at the European Geosciences Union annual meeting in Vienna according to LiveScience.

    Berberich and her colleagues discovered that red wood ants preferred to build their colonies right along active faults in Germany. They counted 15,000 ant mounds lining the faults. These faults are fractures where the Earth violently ruptures in earthquakes.

    Using a special camera mounted software that tracked changes in activity, Berberich and her colleagues tracked the ants round the clock for three years, 2009 to 2012. They found that the ants' behavior changed only when the quake was over magnitude 2. There were 10 earthquakes between magnitude 2.0 and 3.2 during this period, and many smaller ones. Humans can also sense quakes of over magnitude 2 only.

    According to Berberich, normal ant activity consists of going about collecting food etc. during the day and resting in the night. But before an earthquake, the ants did not retreat into their mound in the night and bustled around outside it. This strange and abnormal behavior continued till a day after the earthquake, Berberich told a news conference, according to LiveScience.

    How do ants know an earthquake is coming? Berberich suggested that they could either be picking up changing gas emissions or noting tiny changes in the Earth's magnetic field. Red wood ants have special cells called chemoreceptors which can detect changes in carbon dioxide levels. They also have magnetoreceptor cells for detecting electromagnetic fields, she said.

    It's important to note that websites like wikipedia are not designed to accommodate this situation. We will need to design new websites based upon a constructivist epistemology to do that.

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