Lights Before the Morocco Quake

SHANTHI IYER
Blog
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09 October, 2023

Morocco is a country in North Africa that has a rich and diverse culture, history, and geography. It has a coastline on both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and it borders Algeria and the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Morocco is known for its ancient cities, such as Marrakesh, Fes, and Casablanca, as well as its natural attractions, such as the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains, and the Rif Mountains. Morocco has a population of about 38 million people, most of whom are Arabs or Berbers and practice Islam as the official religion. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. The current king is Mohammed VI, who ascended to the throne in 1999.

The Mystery of the Earthquake Lights in Morocco

On Friday, September 15, 2023, a powerful 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck the High Atlas Mountains in eastern Morocco, causing widespread damage and killing thousands of people. But before the quake hit, some people reported seeing strange lights in the sky, which were captured in videos that went viral on social media. What were these mysterious lights, and how are they related to earthquakes?

What are Earthquake Lights?

Earthquake lights (EQL) are a rare phenomenon that involves flashes, glows, or flames of light appearing in the sky or near the ground before, during, or after an earthquake. They can vary in shape, size, color, and duration and have been described as resembling lightning, auroras, fireballs, or candles. They have previously  been observed in different parts of the world, such as Japan, China, Peru, Mexico, and now Morocco.

What causes Earthquake Lights?

The exact cause of earthquake lights is still unknown, and there are several competing theories. One of the most popular explanations is that they are caused by electrical charges generated by the movement of rocks along fault lines. When these charges reach the surface or the atmosphere, they produce sparks or plasma that emit light. Another possibility is that they are caused by piezoelectricity, which is the generation of electricity by certain materials when they are squeezed or stretched. Some rocks, such as quartz, have this property and may release electric pulses when stressed by tectonic forces. A third hypothesis is that they are caused by the ionisation of air molecules due to friction or compression of gases escaping from cracks in the earth. This could create glowing plasma or corona discharges similar to those seen in neon lights.

Why are Earthquake Lights important?

Earthquake lights are not only fascinating to witness, but they may also have practical implications for earthquake prediction and warning. If earthquake lights are indeed caused by physical processes related to seismic activity, they may indicate the location, magnitude, or timing of an impending quake. Some researchers have suggested that earthquake lights could be used as a natural early warning system that could alert people to take shelter or evacuate before a major tremor. However, this idea is still controversial and requires more evidence and validation.

How can we study Earthquake Lights?

Earthquake lights are very difficult to study because they are unpredictable and ephemeral. They occur only in some earthquakes and not others, and they may last for only a few seconds or minutes. They are also easily confused with other natural or artificial sources of light, such as meteors, aeroplanes, fireworks, or power lines. Therefore, scientists need reliable eyewitness reports and video recordings to verify and analyze earthquake lights. With the advancement of technology and social media, more data on earthquake lights may become available in the future. However, more research is also needed to understand the physical mechanisms behind them and their relationship with seismic activity.

Conclusion

Earthquake lights are a mysterious phenomenon that has intrigued people for centuries. They may provide clues about the inner workings of our planet and its seismic hazards. However, they also pose many challenges and questions for scientists who want to unravel their secrets. The recent earthquake lights in Morocco may offer a new opportunity to learn more about this enigmatic phenomenon and its potential benefits for humanity.

Shanthi Iyer
Senior Academic Associate

UniAthena

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