The Curious Phenomenon of Earthquake Lights

May 4, 2023 6 mins to read

The Curious Phenomenon of Earthquake Lights and Their Mysteries

Earthquakes are one of the most destructive natural disasters, causing devastation and loss of life. However, earthquakes also have a fascinating phenomenon associated with them – earthquake lights. These are strange, luminous displays that have been reported before, during, or after an earthquake, and have baffled scientists and eyewitnesses for centuries.

What are Earthquake Lights?

Definition of earthquake lights:

Earthquake lights are unusual luminous displays that occur before, during, or after an earthquake. They can appear as bright flashes of light, glowing clouds or streaks, balls of light, or pillars of light shooting up from the ground. They may last from a few seconds to several minutes and can be seen up to tens of kilometers away from the earthquake’s epicenter.

Although earthquake lights are most commonly seen before or during an earthquake, they have also been reported after the quake. The lights can be seen in different colors, including white, blue, green, yellow, and red. Some witnesses have reported a faint sound accompanying the lights, similar to the sound of static electricity.

How earthquake lights occur:

  • Earthquake lights are a rare and poorly understood phenomenon that can occur before, during, or after an earthquake.
  • There is no single accepted theory for how earthquake lights occur, but several mechanisms have been proposed, including the piezoelectric effect, electrokinetic effect, and geological stress theory.
  • The piezoelectric effect involves the release of electrical charge when certain crystals, such as quartz, are subjected to mechanical stress, such as that caused by tectonic activity during an earthquake. This charge can ionize air molecules and create a glow.
  • The electrokinetic effect involves the separation of electrical charges in rocks or soil due to stress, friction, or the movement of fluids. This can create electrical fields that ionize the air and produce light.
  • The geological stress theory proposes that rocks or soil under stress during an earthquake

History of Earthquake Lights

Earliest recorded earthquake lights:

The earliest recorded observation of earthquake lights dates back to 89 BC, in China, during an earthquake that occurred in the Luoyang region. In ancient Chinese texts, witnesses described “piercing light beams” and “flames in the sky.” Since then, earthquake lights have been reported in many parts of the world, including Japan, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

Famous earthquake lights sightings throughout history:

One of the most famous accounts of earthquake lights is from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Witnesses reported seeing bright flashes of light before and during the quake. Similar reports were made during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, where a bright flash of light was observed in the sky minutes before the earthquake struck.

Study of earthquake lights in modern times:

  • The study of earthquake lights has become more scientific and systematic in recent decades, with the development of new technologies and methods for detecting and recording these rare events.
  • Scientists have set up monitoring stations and networks around the world to study earthquake lights, including cameras, seismometers, and atmospheric sensors.
  • These stations allow scientists to capture images and data on earthquake lights and compare them with seismic activity and other environmental conditions.
  • Some scientists are also using laboratory experiments and simulations to study the mechanisms behind earthquake lights, such as the piezoelectric effect and electrokinetic effect.
  • However, the rarity and unpredictability of earthquake lights make them difficult to study and understand, and more research is needed to develop reliable methods for detecting and predicting them.

Scientific Theories Explaining Earthquake Lights

Piezoelectric theory:

There is no consensus among scientists on what causes earthquake lights, but several theories have been proposed. One of the leading explanations is the piezoelectric effect. The piezoelectric effect occurs when certain minerals, such as quartz, are compressed, generating an electrical charge that can produce a glow. This effect is well-known in certain materials, such as quartz watches, but scientists are still unsure whether it can explain earthquake lights.

Electrokinetic theory:

Another theory is the electrokinetic effect. This occurs when rock formations are squeezed during an earthquake, causing the release of charged particles. These particles can create an electrical field that produces light.

Geological stress theory:

The geological stress theory proposes that the stresses building up in the Earth’s crust before an earthquake cause changes in the electrical conductivity of the rocks. This leads to the generation of electric charges and the production of light.

Other possible explanations:

Other possible explanations include the release of gases from underground rock formations, the generation of high-frequency electromagnetic waves during an earthquake, and the production of plasma by the friction of tectonic plates.

Mysteries Surrounding Earthquake Lights

Why are they so rare?

The rarity of earthquake lights, their appearance before or during an earthquake, and the different colors and shapes they take, are just a few of the mysteries that surround this phenomenon. However, continued research may help shed light on these mysteries and improve our understanding of earthquakes and the Earth’s geology.

Despite decades of research, many mysteries still surround earthquake lights. One of the most puzzling aspects is their rarity. Earthquake lights are seen in only a small percentage of earthquakes, and it is still unclear why they occur in some earthquakes but not in others.

Why are they only seen before or during earthquakes?

Another mystery is why earthquake lights are only seen before or during an earthquake. If they are caused by the geological stresses building up before an earthquake, why aren’t they seen more frequently? Scientists are also puzzled by the different colors and shapes of earthquake lights. Some researchers have suggested that the colors may be related to the type of rock formations in the region or the intensity of the earthquake.

How can they be used to predict earthquakes?

One of the most intriguing mysteries surrounding earthquake lights is whether they can be used to predict earthquakes. If scientists can determine the cause of earthquake lights and why they occur before or during an earthquake, they may be able to use them as a precursor to an earthquake. However, this is still a topic of debate among scientists.


Earthquake lights remain a fascinating and mysterious phenomenon that has puzzled scientists and eyewitnesses for centuries. Despite decades of research, the cause of earthquake lights is still unknown. Scientists have proposed several theories, including the piezoelectric effect, electrokinetic effect, and geological stress theory, but there is still no consensus.

Studying earthquake lights could also have important practical applications. If scientists can develop a reliable way to predict earthquakes, it could save countless lives and prevent catastrophic damage to infrastructure. Earthquake lights could be a valuable tool in this effort.


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