The strange “earthquake lights” that appeared before the recent 6.8-magnitude earthquake in Morocco sparked conspiracy theories among the public.
These bursts of radiant, dancing lights in various colors have baffled scientists for a long time. There’s no clear agreement on what causes them, but one thing is for sure. They are real.
John Derr, a retired geophysicist who used to work at the US Geological Survey and has co-authored several scientific papers on earthquake lights (EQL), confirms their existence.
Derr explained that spotting EQL depends on a few things such as darkness and other favorable conditions.
He drew parallels between the recent video footage from Morocco, which circulated online, and the earthquake lights captured by security cameras during the 2007 quake in Pisco, Peru.
More lights in the sky in Casablanca, Morocco right before the earthquake pic.twitter.com/DOGl1SzrGT
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Juan Antonio Lira Cacho, a physics professor at Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru and the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, who has extensively researched this phenomenon, highlighted the prevalence of cell phone videos and the widespread use of security cameras. He added that these have simplified the study of earthquake lights.
Cacho noted that just four decades ago, studying these phenomena was practically impossible. Even if you witnessed them, it was challenging to convince others of what you had seen.
Different forms of earthquake lights
Earthquake lights come in various forms, as explained in a chapter co-authored by Derr, featured in the 2019 edition of the Encyclopedia of Solid Earth Geophysics.
At times, these lights might resemble regular lightning in the form of flashing in the sky. Alternatively, they may even take on the appearance of a luminous band in the atmosphere, somewhat similar to the polar aurora.
In other cases, they appear as glowing spheres suspended in midair. Some describe them as small flames, flickering or creeping along the ground or hovering nearby. However, on rare occasions, they manifest as larger flames emerging directly from the Earth itself, explained CNN.
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In China, just before the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a video captured the extraordinary sight of luminous clouds drifting in the sky.
To gain deeper insight into earthquake lights, Derr and his fellow researchers collected data on sixty-five earthquakes in the Americas and Europe.
These earthquakes were associated with credible accounts of earthquake lights dating all the way back to the year 1600.
Most often, these peculiar lights were observed just prior to or during the earthquake itself. Moreover, they could be seen from distances of up to six hundred kilometers (about 372.8 miles) away from the epicenter of the quake.