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An earthquake light, or sometimes just earth light, is an unusual luminous aerial phenomenon, that appears in the sky at or near areas of tectonic stress, seismic activity, or volcanic eruptions. Once commonly challenged, it was not until 1967 that the phenomenon, often abbreviated to EQL, was endorsed by most seismologists, though its origin is unknown.
The lights are most evident while an earthquake is occurring, although there are reports of lights occurring before or after the earthquake, such as before the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. They usually have shapes similar to those of the auroras, with a white to bluish hue, but occasionally they have been reported having a wider color spectrum. The luminosity is typically visible for several seconds, but has been known to last for tens of minutes. In the 1930 Idu earthquake, lights were reported up to 70 miles from the epicentre, although most lights are not so far away.
There have also been cases in which electromagnetic waves caused by the earthquake interfered with radio transmissions, such as during the Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960.
Distinguishing earthquake lights from other transient optical phenomena can be difficult during the chaos of a tremor. For example, bluish-white flashes that are accompanied by loud bangs or hissing during an earthquake are more likely the result of electrical arcing in power lines or transformers. However, in some videos, the light can be seen as a long flash high in the night sky.
The precise mechanism, if such a phenomenon exists—as opposed to being coincidence with aurora or mistaken recall after a traumatic event such as an earthquake—is unknown. One theory suggests that earthquake lights are a form of plasma discharge caused by the release of gases from within the Earth and are electrically charged in the air, which might be confirmed by or simply related to the reports of steam venting out of the earth in recent Peruvian earthquakes.
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.
Another explanation involves intense electric fields created piezoelectrically by tectonic movements of rocks containing quartz.
Some similar clouds have been reported during nuclear tests and radon is likely to be an earthquake precursor, so another theory is that glowing clouds might be light emission produced by ionization or plasma-chemical reactions