Gallery C

Flashes Overhead
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The Mysterious “Earthquake Lights”

By James Donahue

We read a lot about earthquakes that are shaking things up all over our world. We read about the threat of tsunamis when the big quakes occur along coastal areas, and there are the stories about the horrors of the destruction and deaths the major quakes leave behind. But few talk about the strange flashes of lightning that often occur before, during and just after “the big one.”

The lightning flashes overhead has added to the terror experienced by people caught in the extremes of a moving shifting earth under their feet and the danger of collapsing buildings.

Dubbed “earthquake lights,” the odd flashes of light that streak through the sky, sometimes in various colors, have been noticed for years and even photographed. But it wasn’t until recently that scientists have developed theories as to their cause.

The possible explanations have ranged from heat caused by friction, radon gas or piezoelectricity. The latter is an electric charge created in quartz rocks as the tectonic plates grind together deep in the earth.
A team of scientists led by physicist Troy Shinbrot at Rutgers University in New Jersey, studied plastic disks, glass particles and organic powders like flour that can slip in the same way the earth does during an earthquake. They found that all of the materials they studied developed an electrical voltage when disturbed.

In a story that recently appeared in Live Science, Shinbrot noted that unexplained flashes of light occur when various other materials like transparent tape is peeled from a roll, when wintergreen hard candies are broken in a dark room, or when mercury slides across glass.

“If you take a Tupperware contained filled with flour and tip the container, when the flour shifts, voltages of around 100 volts inexplicably appear,” Shinbrot said.

Thus the university team suggests that earthquake lights are originating from a buildup of electrical charge in the ground surrounding geological faults that are in motion. The flashing light show occurs at rifts where pieces of the Earth are pulling apart.