FE1.4 - Luces en el Cielo

Photo by Mahdis Mousavi

Photo by Mahdis Mousavi


During the devastating September 9, 2017 earthquake off the coast of southern Mexico, residents of Mexico City and Quetzaltenango, Guatemala witnessed mysterious bursts of light in the sky. These lights, however, were not UFOs, exploding transformers, or evidence of a mysterious government conspiracy - instead, they were examples of a long-documented phenomenon known as “earthquake lights.”

Can these mysterious lights in the sky help us learn to anticipate earthquakes? Can physics explain the strange animal behaviour linked to seismic activity? We unravel the science – and controversy – of a new interpretation of geophysics, and we talk to two groups developing very different technologies with the same goal: saving lives from earthquake disaster.


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Future Ecologies is recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam (xwməθkwəy̓əm) Squamish (Skwxwú7mesh), and Tsleil- Waututh (Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh) Nations - otherwise known as Vancouver, British Columbia.  

This episode features, in order of appearance: Edward Gonzalez Godinez; Dr. Friedemann Freund, Senior Research Scientist at NASA Ames and Senior Researcher at the SETI Institute; Dr. Jennifer Strauss, External Relations Officer at UC Berkeley, and Regional Coordinator for ShakeAltert; and Tom Bleier and Dan Coughlan, of Quakefinder.

Special thanks to Riley Byrne at Podigy, Andrjez Kozlowski, Ilana Fonariov, Sarah Sax, and David Skulski.     

Music for this episode was produced by Jonathan Scherk, Radioactive Bishop, Doctor Turtle, and Sunfish Moon Light.  

This season of Future Ecologies is supported in part by the Vancouver Foundation.  Learn more at https://vancouverfoundationsmallarts.ca/.  

A lot of research goes into each episode of Future Ecologies, including great journalism from a variety of media outlets, and we like to cite our sources:

Bakun, W. H., Aagaard, B., Dost, B., Ellsworth, W. L., Hardebeck, J. L., Harris, R. A., . . . Waldhauser, F. (2005). Implications for prediction and hazard assessment from the 2004 Parkfield earthquake. Nature, 437(7061), 969-974. doi:10.1038/nature04067

Dahlgren, R. P., Johnston, M. J., Vanderbilt, V. C., & Nakaba, R. N. (2014). Comparison of the Stress-Stimulated Current of Dry and Fluid-Saturated Gabbro Samples. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 104(6), 2662-2672. doi:10.1785/0120140144

Freund, F. (2002). Charge generation and propagation in igneous rocks. Journal of Geodynamics, 33(4-5), 543-570. doi:10.1016/s0264-3707(02)00015-7

Freund, F. (2003). On the electrical conductivity structure of the stable continental crust. Journal of Geodynamics, 35(3), 353-388. doi:10.1016/s0264-3707(02)00154-0

Freund, F. (2011). Pre-earthquake signals: Underlying physical processes. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, 41(4-5), 383-400. doi:10.1016/j.jseaes.2010.03.009

Freund, F., & Stolc, V. (2013). Nature of Pre-Earthquake Phenomena and their Effects on Living Organisms. Animals, 3(2), 513-531. doi:10.3390/ani3020513

Freund, F. T., & Freund, M. M. (2015). Paradox of peroxy defects and positive holes in rocks. Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, 114, 373-383. doi:10.1016/j.jseaes.2015.04.047

Freund, F. T., Takeuchi, A., & Lau, B. W. (2006). Electric currents streaming out of stressed igneous rocks – A step towards understanding pre-earthquake low frequency EM emissions. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 31(4-9), 389-396. doi:10.1016/j.pce.2006.02.027

Grant, R. A., & Halliday, T. (2010). Predicting the unpredictable; evidence of pre-seismic anticipatory behaviour in the common toad. Journal of Zoology. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2010.00700.x

Grant, R. A., Halliday, T., Balderer, W. P., Leuenberger, F., Newcomer, M., Cyr, G., & Freund, F. T. (2011). Ground Water Chemistry Changes before Major Earthquakes and Possible Effects on Animals. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8(6), 1936-1956. doi:10.3390/ijerph8061936

Grant, R. A., Raulin, J. P., & Freund, F. T. (2015). Changes in animal activity prior to a major ( M = 7) earthquake in the Peruvian Andes. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 85-86, 69-77. doi:10.1016/j.pce.2015.02.012

Johnston, M. J. (2006). Seismomagnetic Effects from the Long-Awaited 28 September 2004 M 6.0 Parkfield Earthquake. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 96(4B). doi:10.1785/0120050810

Lockner, D. A., Johnston, M. J., & Byerlee, J. D. (1983). A mechanism to explain the generation of earthquake lights. Nature, 302(5903), 28-33. doi:10.1038/302028a0

St-Laurent, F., Derr, J. S., & Freund, F. T. (2006). Earthquake lights and the stress-activation of positive hole charge carriers in rocks. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 31(4-9), 305-312. doi:10.1016/j.pce.2006.02.003

Takeuchi, A., & Nagao, T. (2013). Activation of hole charge carriers and generation of electromotive force in gabbro blocks subjected to nonuniform loading. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 118(3), 915-925. doi:10.1002/jgrb.50111

Theriault, R., St-Laurent, F., Freund, F. T., & Derr, J. S. (2014). Prevalence of Earthquake Lights Associated with Rift Environments. Seismological Research Letters, 85(1), 159-178. doi:10.1785/0220130059

Whitehead, N. E., & Ulusoy, Ü. (2015). Origin of Earthquake Light Associated with Earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, 2010-2011. Earth Sciences Research Journal, 19(2), 113-120. doi:10.15446/esrj.v19n2.47000

This episode includes music from the Project Gutenberg Library.  It also includes audio recorded by metamorphmuses, gelo_papas, Benboncan, volivieri, Sclolex, jonccox, joedeshon, YourFriendJesse, CGEffex (compacting machine.wav), Audionautics, Gary Qian, LoafDV, James Swift, Electroviolence, and bigpickle51, protected by Creative Commons attribution licenses, and accessed through the Freesound Project.

And finally, a plug for N.K. Jemisen’s Hugo Award-winning sci-fi/fantasy novel about a civilization obsessed with their seismic environment: The Fifth Season (Part 1 of the Broken Earth trilogy).