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Mysterious Lights Spotted Before Deadly Morocco Earthquake Continue To Baffle Scientists

Reports of “earthquake lights,” like the ones seen in videos captured before Friday’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake in Morocco, go back centuries to ancient Greece.

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Morocco earthquake lights

Reports of “earthquake lights,” like the ones seen in videos captured before Friday’s 6.8-magnitude earthquake in Morocco, go back centuries to ancient Greece | Image: X

Reports of mysterious lights, reminiscent of the eerie spectacle witnessed just before Friday's 6.8-magnitude earthquake rattled Morocco, have resurfaced, dating back centuries to ancient Greece, reported CNN.

These enigmatic bursts of luminous, dancing lights in various colors have confounded scientists for generations, with no definitive explanation yet. However, according to John Derr, a retired geophysicist formerly with the US Geological Survey, these lights are "definitely real."

Derr who spoke to CNN, who co-authored several scientific papers on earthquake lights (EQL), explained, "Seeing EQL depends on darkness and other favorability factors." He noted that the recent video from Morocco resembled the earthquake lights captured on security cameras during a 2007 quake in Pisco, Peru.

Modern technology illuminates the phenomenon

Juan Antonio Lira Cacho, a physics professor at Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru and the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, highlighted the role of modern technology. He emphasized that cell phone videos and widespread security camera usage have made studying earthquake lights more accessible. He stated, "Forty years ago, it was impossible. If you saw them, nobody would believe what you saw."

Earthquake lights manifest in various forms, as detailed in a chapter co-authored by Derr and published in the 2019 edition of the Encyclopedia of Solid Earth Geophysics. They can resemble ordinary lightning, a luminous band in the atmosphere akin to polar auroras, glowing spheres hovering midair, small flames flickering or creeping along the ground, or even larger flames emerging from the earth.

Unraveling the mystery

To gain a better understanding of earthquake lights, Derr and colleagues compiled data on 65 American and European earthquakes associated with credible reports of these phenomena dating back to 1600. Their findings, published in a 2014 paper in the journal Seismological Research Letters, revealed that approximately 80% of the EQL occurrences studied were linked to earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 5.0. These lights often appeared shortly before or during the seismic event, visible up to 600 kilometers (372.8 miles) from the earthquake's epicenter.

While powerful earthquakes are typically expected along tectonic plate boundaries, the 2014 study found that most earthquakes associated with luminous phenomena occurred within tectonic plates, rather than at their boundaries, reported CNN. Moreover, earthquake lights were more likely to occur in or near rift valleys—regions created when Earth's crust was pulled apart in the past.

The electric connection

Friedemann Freund, a collaborator of Derr and an adjunct professor at San Jose University and former researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, has proposed a theory for earthquake lights. Freund explained that when certain defects or impurities in rock crystals experience mechanical stress, such as during the buildup of tectonic forces before or during a major earthquake, they break apart instantly and generate electricity. Rock, typically an insulator, transforms into a semiconductor under stress.

Freund stated, "It's like switching on a battery, generating electrical charges that can flow out of the stressed rocks into and through unstressed rocks. The charges travel fast, at up to around 200 meters per second."

A puzzle yet to be solved

Numerous theories exist about what causes earthquake lights, including static electricity produced by rock fracturing and radon emanation, among others. Currently, there is no consensus among seismologists regarding the mechanism behind earthquake lights, leaving scientists eager to unlock the mysteries of these luminous outbursts.

Freund remains hopeful that one day, earthquake lights or the electric charge responsible for them could be combined with other factors to help forecast the approach of major earthquakes, offering a potential breakthrough in earthquake prediction.

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