Earthquake: strange glowing in the sky possibly 'earthquake lightning' video

Major damage caused by the 7.5-magnitude earthquake in Canterbury.
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Major damage caused by the 7.5-magnitude earthquake in Canterbury.

What was that strange light in the sky?

Many people overnight reported seeing strange lights in the sky, a phenomenon that has been reported for centuries before, during, and after earthquakes.

Seismologists aren't in agreement about the causes of the hotly-debated phenomenon - called earthquake lights or, sometimes, earthquake lightning.

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Photos taken from a NZDF helicopter show massive rockfalls in several areas in the upper South Island.

The major route from Christchurch to Kaikoura is impassable.

The NZDF sent helicopters to survey areas in North Canterbury that were rocked by a massive 7.5 earthquake early on Monday.

Historic Waiau Pub co-owner Lindsay Collins looks over the damage.

Hanmer hospitality workers rushed into the streets following a 6.3 magnitude aftershock at around 1.30pm.

Local residents Chris and Viv Young look at damage caused by an earthquake along State Highway 1 near the town of Ward.

Aftermath of earthquake at a house in Waiau, North Canterbury.

Earthquake road damage State Highway 1.

Historic Waiau Pub co-owner Michelle Beri looks over the damage to her bedroom, grateful that she was not sleeping in it at the time.

A railway line is damaged by an earthquake, near Tirohanga stream south of Blenheim.

Stuart Smith stands in a crack in the road at Tirohunga flat near Kaikoura.

Earthquake road damage State Highway 1.

Precariously dangling shipping containers seen on CentrePort wharf in Wellington.

Major road damage near Mt Lyford.

The Elms homestead near Kaikoura.

Ward resident Bryan Phipps surveys the damage to his Ward home after this mornings earthquake.

Local residents Chris and Viv Young look at damage caused by an earthquake along State Highway 1 near the town of Ward, south of Blenheim.

A truck drives over fractures caused by the earthquake, along a road south of Ward.

Slip near SH1 south of Kaikoura.

A slip near Mt Lyford.

Quake rattled seek shelter at parliament.

Trucks parked up on State Highway 1 north of Ward after this morning's earthquake.

Clean-up at Culverden Four Square after the magnitude 7.5 earthquake.

Building damage on High St, Picton following Monday morning's earthquake.

Damage to Needles Bridge, north of Ward, Marlborough.

Builing damage on Picton's High St.

Damage to SH 1 north of Blenheim. Spring Creek bridge closed.

Wellington's Days Bay Wharf was closed following the earthquake.

Confused central city residents in Wellington headed for Brooklyn fearing a tsunami.

Damage to SH 1, near Ward, an hour north of Kaikoura, following Monday morning's 7.5 quake.

The Timaru town clock stopped after the major earthquake just after midnight.

The Timaru town clock stopped after the major earthquake just after midnight.

Residents of low-lying areas of Wellington city were evacuated after a tsunami warning.

Students are moved from an accommodation in Willis St to Cumberland House across the street, because of water damage.

Wellington residents evacuated from a building in Willis St.

Wellington's ferry terminal damaged in Monday morning earthquake.

Civil defence staff keep people from Dunedin's St Clair beach.

Victoria University of Wellington's Kelburn campus is closed.

Earthquake damage at a Wellington home.

Glasson Cuba St.

Pipes are broken with water leaking throughout a Wellington apartment building.

Broken glass and damages seen at Wakefield St, Wellington.

Dirty tap water from a home in Brooklyn, Wellington.

Quake damage seen in Wellington central.

The bridge at Wellington ferry terminal has collapsed.

Damage to buildings on Wakefield Street, Wellington.

Scene in a Wellington resident's home after a quake hit.

Plenty of people in the capital were woken up by shakes and damages were reported in many parts in the city.

Farmers in Cuba St in Wellington.

Fresh Choice in Nelson

Shattered glass in the stairwell of Wellington's Spark building.

Fresh Choice Nelson

Shattered glasses in one of the buildings in Wellington.

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And, of course, it's not clear whether the lights overnight in New Zealand were the phenomenon, or something else.

READ MORE:
* Live: the 7.5 quake
* Isolated towns damaged, cut off
* Earthquakes causes deaths, major damage

 
Strange lights appear in the Wellington night sky during the 7.5-magnitude Kaikoura on Monday morning.
TVNZ

Strange lights appear in the Wellington night sky during the 7.5-magnitude Kaikoura on Monday morning.

One theory suggests dormant electrical charges in rocks are triggered by the stress of the Earth's crust and plate tectonics, transferring the charge to the surface where it appears as light.

Historical reports include globes, or orbs, of glowing light, floating just above the ground or in the sky.

Much like tidal research, it is an area that is notoriously difficult to investigate. Tidal stresses and their effects on the Earth are minute, but measurable, although many seismologists remain unconvinced by theories of "tidally triggered" earthquakes.

With "earthquake light", the phenomenon is also notoriously difficult to observe, study, and measure.​

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GNS seismologist Caroline Holden said there were anecdotal reports of lights in the sky.

"Unfortunately, we cannot measure this phenomena or its extent with our instruments to provide a clear explanation," she said.

The phenomenon has been documented for centuries.

Hypotheses have suggested the movement of rocks could generate an electric field, others suggest quakes can lead to rocks conducting electromagnetic energy and a subsequent build up of electric charges in the upper atmosphere.

Yet another theory suggests a link between the electric charge, or current, released by the earth ripping and buckling below the surface, and the magnetic properties of rock.

The charge appears as light, so the theory goes.

People reported similar strange lights in the sky during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

In 1888, before a large quake around the Hanmer region, a strange glow in the sky was reported by observers.

One recent study documented hundreds of sightings of strange light, glowing, and aurora-like reports, from 1600 to the 19th century.

The study in the Seismological Research Letters suggested a charge builds up in rock inside the Earth's crust and, as it becomes rapidly unstable in a quake, expands outward.

In an earthquake, the electrical charge transfers from below the surface to the surface, or above, depending on the conductivity of the rock - appearing as light.

"When such an intense charge state reaches the Earth's surface and crosses the ground–air interface, it is expected to cause [an electric transmission and breakdown] of the air and, hence, an outburst of light.

"This process is suspected to be responsible for flashes of light coming out of the ground and expanding to considerable heights at the time when seismic waves from a large earthquake pass by."

The study said some seismologists also think the theory could account for other phenomena, such as changes to electrical fields, strange fog, haze, clouds, and low-frequency humming or radio frequency emission.

In the study, the researchers found the light was more often associated with a type of quake in which tectonic plates are wrenched apart, known as a "rift" earthquake.

 - Stuff

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