(Update: Several people have reported seeing earthquake lights prior to the recent earthquake near Lima, Peru. If you've seen these lights too, I'd be very grateful if you could tell me about your experience using the feedback form at the very bottom of this page. There are three videos of the lights that I know of, here (50 secs in), here (30 secs in), and here. Please let me know if you have any more!)
Earthquakes have long been accompanied by the appearance of "bright, luminescent, multicoloured sky glows" (Wagner, 1978) that can take place any time before, during, or after the seismological event. They've been recorded throughout history, but modern science has only started to take them seriously since the photographs of the Matsushiro earthquake lights taken by Yutaka Yasui between 1965 and 1967 (Derr, 2005). There have since been extensive observations of several events, but the phenomenon currently remains unexplained.
The first recorded mention of earthquake lights comes from Callisthenes (not Thucydides as is commonly reported), who wrote of an earthquake of 373 BC that "[a]mong the many prodigies by which the destruction of the two cities, Helice and Buris, was foretold, especially notable were both the immense columns of fire and the Delos earthquake"*. Powell and Finkelstein (1971) quote an old Japanese haiku that has been subsequently re-quoted in almost every EQL summary written:
The earth speaks softlyTo the mountainWhich tremblesAnd lights the sky.
The majority of reports, however, start to flood in in the 20th century. After the 1930 Idu Peninsula earthquake in Japan, for example, researchers collected over 1500 reports of unknown lights. And the Tangshan earthquake in China on 28th July 1976 was accompanied by a "colorful, flashing light display [that] was seen in the sky 200 miles away"*. In 1988 and 1999, the Saguenay region of Quebec had thirty eight instances of EQL activity, most of which were category three in Frederic Montandon's 1948 EQL taxonomy (in Lueurs et Malaises d'Origine Seismique?), as reported by Corliss (2000):
- Seismic lightning (no thunder);
- Luminous bands in atmosphere;
- Globular incandescent masses;
- Fire tongues, small mobile flames near the ground, like Will-o'-the wisps; and
- Flames emerging from the ground.
Marcel Ouellet even wrote about them in Nature on 6th Dec 1990, in a piece called Earthquake lights and seismicity where he notes that "[f]ireballs a few metres in diameter often popped out of the ground in a repetitive manner at distances of up to only a few metres away from the observers". Lights were often seen before and after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.
In a landmark 2003 paper called Rocks That Crackle and Sparkle and Glow Friedemann T. Freund of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center proposed a theory that high-energy distortions of into p-type semiconductors allowing an electric charge cloud to rock can turn them propogate through the rock. Later work with France St. Laurent discusses this and its application to the Saguenay EQLs. Also in that year, Carl Raymond of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found that an Inferometric-Synthetic Aperture Radar may be able to detect earthquakes before they happen.
A few years ago, the Turkey UFO & Paranormal Events Research Org., otherwise known as TUVPO, furnished me with some images of earthquake lights recently taken in Turkey. TUVPO's aim was to investigate the possiblity of using earthquake lights to predict upcoming earthquakes, hence (perhaps indirectly) providing an early warning mechanism. Their site appears as of 2004-11 to have gone down, but at least I still have the pictures that they sent to me that they obtained from a Turkish television station:
The famous picture of earthquake lights at the top of this page, used courtesy of the Earthquake Engineering Research Center, University of California, Berkeley, was taken by T. Kuribayashi at 03:25 JST on 26th September 1966, by Mt. Kimyo, Japan. It was one of the photographs of the Matsushiro quake that brought EQLs to the brink of being officially recognized and studied. The luminousity lasted approximately 90 seconds, and the camera was pointing north.