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Weird Lights May Predict Earthquakes

Alberto Enriquez, in the Anchorage Daily News, writes that earthquakes don?t just cause the earth to move. They are accompanied by loud noises that broadcast at radio frequencies, and they can even produce a visible glow.

Radio interference was reported in the days before the worst quake recorded (magnitude 9.5), in Chile in 1961, as well as Alaska?s magnitude 9.2 Good Friday quake in 1964. Thirty-eight luminous displays were seen by people in Quebec before, during and after the earthquakes of November 1988.

The first photographs of earthquake lights were taken during the Matsushiro ?earthquake swarm? in Japan between 1965 and 1967, when thousands of seismic events were being recorded each day. Lights during a Chinese quake in 1976 turned night into day near the epicenter and woke up people nearly 200 miles away.

In May 1978, residents of Homer, Alaska were awakened by a ?false sunrise? over the western side the Cook Inlet several hours before the real sunrise. About that time, Anchorage bush pilot Sumner Putnam reported to the Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys that he saw greenish-white flashes in Nondalton that coincided with bursts of static on his plane?s radio. ?Earthquake lights? were noticed even in ancient times. The Greek historian Thucydides wrote that ?immense columns of flame? foretold an earthquake that destroyed the two ancient cities of Helice and Burls. An ancient Japanese haiku says, ?The earth speaks softly to the mountain, Which trembles And lights the sky.?

Now scientists may be able to reliably duplicate earthquake lights or ?coronal discharges? under artificial conditions in the lab. Because some earthquake lights occur hours and even weeks before the quakes themselves, research into them means that someday we may be able to use them to predict earthquakes.

Physicist Friedemann Freund, a professor at San Jose State University in California, theorizes that positive charges may be created when huge stresses are generated along faults in the Earth?s crust. The rocks in the crust normally act as insulators that conduct electrical charges poorly. But under the severe stress generated before an earthquake, these rocks may behave briefly like the ?p-type semiconductors? found in computer chips, which are capable of releasing large numbers of positive charges referred to as ?holes.? These charges speed upward toward the surface of the Earth at between 220 and 660 mph. Freund thinks they ionize the atmosphere upon reaching the air, creating bizarre effects, such as radio interference and colored streamers, flashes and glows.

Theories about earthquake lights were dismissed in the 1970s. Then in 1986, Brian Brady and Glen Rowell, of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, created lights by breaking up rocks in darkness. As the rocks broke apart, they gave off light that did not have the characteristic spectrum of the minerals in the rock, but of the air. This suggested that something given off by the breaking itself had ionized the air.

Seismologist John Derr thinks accounts of earthquake lights in the past are far more common than we realize and that they were often were interpreted as spiritual experiences or ghosts.

On the Alaska Peninsula, a brilliant glow often seen in the mountains south of Lake Iliamna and visible up to 45 miles away, is described by Native peoples as the work of ghosts. Floating lights seen on the sacred mountain of Wu T'ai Shan in China have been interpreted by Buddhists as a manifestation of a saint. The Gospel of Matthew, 28:51-53, says, ?The earth shook, and the rocks were split and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and seen coming out of tombs.? Reports in Australia of an oval light chasing a car and of a UFO buzzing a fishing boat occurred two days before a series of earthquakes.

Earthquake light effects are less pronounced at transverse faults like the San Andreas in California, where plates mainly rub alongside each other. Nevertheless, before the 1906 San Francisco quake, a ?flickering haze? appeared over the ground. Earthquake lights are much more pronounced near the far more dangerous thrust faults, such as those that occur in Alaska, where 51 percent of all U.S. quakes occur, and in Japan.

Freund has developed a way to test his theory by generating stress in rocks, which ?can account for earthquake-related electrical signals causing electric discharges and earthquake lights.? Duplicating earthquake lights in the lab is important because science deals with reproducible events. Freund says it?s tough to do basic research while waiting for the Earth ?to repeat the experiment.?

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