Ahead of a deadly magnitude 6.8 earthquake in Eastern Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains on September 8, 2023, unexplained lights were reported in the sky. While the phenomenon has historical roots and recent accounts, its authenticity and cause remain subjects of debate.
Reports have emerged of unusual lights in the sky over Morocco preceding the tragic M6.8 earthquake that rocked the High Atlas Mountains on September 8, 2023. This catastrophic event resulted in the loss of approximately 2 900 lives and left around 5 500 injured.
The lights, which some liken to the ancient accounts of “earthquake lights” or EQL have previously been documented, with instances as old as Grecian times. While existing footage of this recent occurrence is still undergoing verification, it’s worth noting that the phenomenon isn’t new. Thanks to the rise of social media platforms and smartphone technology, such reports might see an uptick in frequency. In fact, NOVA PBS highlighted the appearance of similar lights in 2021, right before an earthquake in Mexico City, and once again in Japan in 2022 preceding another seismic event.
Following these accounts, there are other intriguing instances that stand out. Just moments before the L’Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009, witnesses observed small flames of light, about 10 cm (4 inches) in height, dancing above the cobblestones of Francesco Crispi Avenue, situated in the town’s historic heart. Similarly, in 1988, 11 days prior to a significant tremor, an illuminating purple-pink orb traversed the sky alongside the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. Going even further back, in 1906, a pair observed luminous trails skirting the earth’s surface two evenings before the major earthquake that shook the region approximately 100 km (62 miles) northwest of San Francisco.
John Derr, a retired USGS geophysicist who co-authored several scientific papers on EQL, said there’s still no consensus on what causes them, but they are definitely real.
“Seeing EQL depends on darkness and other favourability factors,” Derr told CNN in an email.
According to a chapter co-written by Derr in the 2019 edition of the Encyclopedia of Solid Earth Geophysics, earthquake lights can manifest in various ways. At times, they might resemble typical lightning, while in other instances, they could present as glowing bands in the atmosphere, similar to polar auroras. Other times they resemble glowing spheres floating in midair.
In a study published in 2014, Derr and his team compiled data on 65 American and European earthquakes that had reliable accounts of earthquake lights, with records going back to 1600.
According to the study, rare earthquake lights are more likely to occur on or near rift environments, where subvertical faults allow stress-induced electrical currents to flow rapidly to the surface.
“The numbers are striking and unexpected,” said Robert Thériault, a geologist with the Ministère des Ressources Naturelles of Québec, who, along with colleagues, culled centuries of literature references, limiting the cases in this study to 65 of the best-documented events in the Americas and Europe.
“We don’t know quite yet why more earthquake light events are related to rift environments than other types of faults,” said Thériault, “but unlike other faults that may dip at a 30-35 degree angle, such as in subduction zones, subvertical faults characterize the rift environments in these cases.”
Despite the increasing accounts of these lights, the scientific community remains divided on their authenticity and origin. The potential for these lights to serve as an early warning system for earthquakes holds great promise. Should a concrete link between these luminous events and earthquakes be established, it could revolutionize early detection mechanisms for seismic activity, The Weather Network writes.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), while acknowledging these stories, remains neutral in its stance. The agency notes that opinions within the geophysical community differ greatly on the validation of these reports. Some geophysicists even consider a portion of these accounts as potential occurrences of electricity arcs from shaken power lines. Karen Daniels, a physicist from North Carolina State University, encapsulated the enigmatic nature of the phenomenon by stating to The New York Times that it’s a “persistent mystery.”
An intriguing theory postulated by Geophysicist Friedemann Freund suggests these lights might be a manifestation of static electricity. He proposed to The Washington Post that the friction resulting from tectonic plates rubbing against each other might produce an electric current, subsequently leading to these flashes. However, many in the scientific community, including some referenced by the USGS, remain skeptical.
One of the primary challenges in studying earthquake lights is their unpredictability and transient nature, as highlighted by National Geographic. The magazine suggests that as long as multiple scientific theories continue to emerge, the discussions surrounding the origins of earthquake lights will remain intense and spirited.
1 Earthquake lights linked to rift environments, subvertical faults – Seismological Society of America/EurekAlert – January 2, 2024
2 Strange lights spotted in sky above Morocco ahead of deadly earthquake – The Weather Network – September 18, 2023
3 Strange lights spotted in Morocco earthquake videos may be a phenomenon reported for centuries, scientists say – CNN – September 15, 2023
Featured image: Earthquake lights over Moroccoo leading up to M6.8 earthquake on September 8, 2023. Author: unknown
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