There is apparently a phenomenon that happens right before and perhaps during an earthquake that is very similar to the auroras in the northern and southern hemispheres. This phenomenon, somewhat regarded as make-believe until recent history, is referred to as “earthquake light.” Apparently right before and during an earthquake (or perhaps more accurately, “places of tectonic stress, seismic activity, or volcanic eruptions”), aurora-esque luminous activity in the sky has been reported all over the world. Wikipedia talks a little about this acticity:
Earthquake lights are caused by an unknown mechanism. There are numerous theories as to how and why they occur.
One explanation involves intense electric fields created piezoelectrically by tectonic movements of rocks containing quartz.
Another possible explanation is local disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field and/or ionosphere in the region of tectonic stress, resulting in the observed glow effects either from ionospheric radiative recombination at lower altitudes and greater atmospheric pressure or as aurora. However, the effect is clearly not pronounced or notably observed at all earthquake events and is yet to be directly experimentally verified.
There is also debate in the scientific community regarding Radon as a possible precursor to some earthquakes, so another theory is that glowing clouds might be light emission produced by ionization or plasma-chemical reactions
Whereas the aurora activity in the northern and southern hemispheres has been known to have certain colors, earthquake lights (EQL’s) have been either white/blue or multi-spectrum, like below in this video 10 minutes before the 2008 earthquake in Meixian, Shaanxi province, China:
That’s freaky. It’s almost a warning of sorts. It could also just be some kind of complete random coincidence too – but scientists have been grappling with any kind of earthquake early-warning detection system for years. Could this be something that they should be looking into with more detail? They certainly aren’t letting it go unattended.
The USGS (United States Geological Survey) talks about their existence on their website. From the page on EQLs:
Observations of earthquake lights (EQL), mostly white to bluish flashes or glows lasting several seconds associated with moderate to large earthquakes, have been reported infrequently by observers since ancient times. It wasn’t until the phenomenon was captured in photographs, taken during the Matsushiro earthquake swarm in Japan between 1965 and 1967, that the seismological community acknowledged their occurrence. A satisfactory theory to explain EQL, however, has been elusive and is still not agreed upon. Proposed mechanisms include piezoelectricity, frictional heating, exoelectron emissions, sonoluminescence, phosphine gas emissions, and fluid injection (electrokinetics), but the most recent theory suggests that EQL are caused by separation of positive hole charge carriers that turn rocks momentarily into p-type semiconductors (first and second references below).
The most extensive modern study of EQL observations comes from the Saguenay, Quebec, earthquakes of 1988-1989 (third reference below). At least 46 well-documented reports span the time from three weeks before the main shock to two months after. The general categories of observations include: (1) seismic lightning, (2) atmospheric luminous bands, (3) globular incandescent masses, (4) fire tongues, (5) seismic flames, and a newly-recognized category, (6) coronal or point discharges. The latter observations, resulting from one observer being in the right place at the time of the main shock, strongly support the positive hole theory.
This is something that could be studied as an early-warning phenomena to save lives. Scientists at NASA and at the USGS will hopefully continue to study this occurrence as it happens, and hopefully save tens of thousands of lives.
Below is a USGS map of the 2008 Sichuan quake, and the placement/sightings of “colorful clouds” related to the quake: