Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Lightning
by Stephen Smith  /  Sep 08, 2011

“Lightning discharges in the atmosphere are familiar, but what about the ones underground? The electrical phenomenon we call lightning is not well understood. The most common interpretation involves the circulation of water vapor up and down through clouds in a process called convection.

Water is heated by the Sun until it evaporates, rising into the air where it collects into clouds. The water vapor continues to rise higher and higher, finally cooling enough to condense back into liquid. Earth’s gravity then pulls it back to the surface where the cycle repeats. According to consensus opinions, water droplets tend to collide during convection, knocking electrons off one another, creating a charge separation.

Electrons accumulate in the lower portion of the cloud, where it acquires a negative charge. As the droplets that have lost an electron continue to rise, they carry a positive charge into the top of the cloud. The regions of charge differential, or charge separation, cause an electric field to form between them, with a strength directly proportional to the amount of charge in the cloud. The electric field can become so powerful that it repels electrons in the Earth’s surface, forcing it to become positively charged. A conductive pathway between the two regions can initiate a lighting leader stroke that eventually connects with some positive streamer rising from the ground.

Such a process cannot explain volcanic lightning. Most planetary scientists assume that the cause is similar, but there is no experimental evidence to confirm the idea. Over the last two hundred years of reporting, lightning has been seen in the ash clouds spewing from numerous volcanic eruptions. Gigantic branching displays were photographed during the Mt. Chaiten eruption in May of 2008. There were reports of ball lightning bigger than beach balls rolling along the ground when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1981. Eyjafjallajökull produced flashes that lit up the sky for many kilometers.

Large “telluric currents” have been found circulating through Earth’s crust because our magnetic field induces current flow in conductive strata. Thousands of amperes flow beneath the surface, varying according to conductivity. Since the Sun can affect Earth’s magnetic field through geomagnetic storms, fluctuations in telluric currents can occur when there is an increase in sunspots or solar flares, because they create oscillations in the ionosphere. Sometimes earthquakes can produce flashes of light and other luminous events, as well.

Ball lightning has been reported accompanying earthquakes, as have bright, colorful cloud-like formations floating in the sky above the fractured strata. It is not surprising that glow discharges occur before and after earthquakes: compressing quartz creates a flow of electric current. That is one reason why radio noise can be detected coming from areas under extreme stress. Is that stress only due to compression?

Quartz reacts to stress by producing electricity, but when electric current flows through quartz it vibrates with a frequency coincident with the watts of power supplied to it. In a previous post, our planet was compared to a capacitor, capable of being charged and discharged by external electric fields. A capacitor stores electric charge.


Capacitors are constructed of two conductors, or “plates,” separated by a dielectric insulator. Electric charge on one plate attracts an opposite charge to the other, resulting in an electric field between them. As the capacitor’s charge increases, its electric field increases, stressing the insulator’s ability to separate opposite charges. If a high enough potential grows between the two conductive plates, the dielectric insulator will fail and the capacitor will short circuit, suddenly releasing the stored energy.

It is that phenomenon that most likely contributes to atmospheric lightning discharges. Stored electrical energy in the clouds and in the ground overcome the atmosphere’s ability to keep the two charges separate, so they reach out to each other as “leader strokes.” When the two lightning leaders meet, a circuit between the clouds and the ground (or between one cloud and another) is completed and a burst of electric current flashes along the conductive pathway.

Since magma can be considered a form of liquid plasma, it can also conduct electricity. As the ionosphere is charged up by solar flares, opposite charge is attracted to subterranean magma. Electric currents in plasma pinch down into filaments and form double layers. Electromagnetic forces between current filaments and between double layers can cause sudden pressure variations. If, as stated above, the charge differential between layers becomes too great, a double layer can explode, releasing all of its energy flow instantaneously.

So earthquakes can be considered a form of underground lightning. If there is a break in the strata, permitting magma to reach the surface, the arc discharge might connect to the outside and a lightning bolt will leap from the cone of a volcano. If earthquakes are underground lightning bolts, then perhaps seismic waves are the thunderclaps. In that case, it seems likely that the majority of energy release during an earthquake is not from the fracturing and movement of rock strata, but is the result of electrical energy detonating within the matrix.

Earthquake Lights Traced to Electrical Charges in Rocks
by Jeremy Hsu / 7 Jan 2014

“Spooky lights heralding the onset of earthquakes have been tied to divine portents or UFO sightings in the past. But the true culprit may be certain rocks that release electric charges when stressed by the Earth’s seismic shifts, researchers say.

“Spectrograms calculated onboard the satellite Demeter in the VLF range with the electric sensors (top panel) and the magnetic sensors (bottom panel) for the 4 half-orbits.”

The strange phenomena of earthquake lights—sometimes resembling bluish flames, lightning strikes, or floating orbs—can be explained by tiny crystal defects in certain rocks that can release electric charges, according to National GeographicResearchers examined the historical record of earthquake lights from around the world and detailed their latest findings in the journal Seismological Research Letters.

Recent theories have focused on the disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field or the piezoelectric effect of producing electricity by squeezing certain crystals such as quartz. But the new research points to a different electronic process related to certain rocks such as basalts and gabbros. Such rocks can be found in “dike” structures that formed as magma cooled in vertical faults reaching as deep as 97 kilometers underground.


The stressed rocks release charge when triggered by seismic waves accompanying earthquakes, says Friedemann Freund, a senior researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center and co-author on the paper. The charges travel along the dikes toward the surface, combining with one another to form a “plasma-like state,” and finally emerge to create electrical discharges in the air related to the earthquake light displays.

“Earthquake-damaged town of Onna in L’Aquila, Italy. Residents saw bright lights before the earthquake struck the town in 2009.”

Such lights only occur for less than 0.5 percent of earthquakes worldwide, according to the paper’s estimates. They appear most common in Italy, Greece, France, Germany, China, and South America. But they have excited observers in regions as far apart as Japan and North America. (The image below comes from Jim Conacher, a retired Canadian government agriculture inspector, who took a photo of yellow orbs floating on a mountain near Tagish Lake in Canada—just a few hours before the nearby Cross Sound earthquake occurred on 1 July 1973.)

Freund has written about the electromagnetic phenomena related to earthquakes for IEEE Spectrum in the past. He previously examined radio frequency phenomena connected to some earthquakes and showed how the Earth’s crust can act like a huge battery driving a geological radio circuit extending more than 30 kilometers underground. The NASA researcher is currently working with other scientists to integrate earthquake lights sightings with a global earthquake forecasting system.

“Electromagnetic waves recorded by Demeter on November 10, 2004 during the most important magnetic storm of the year (Dst= -400 nT). The top panel shows a spectrogram of the electric field and the bottom a spectrogram of the magnetic field in the ELF range. The data correspond to a complete half-orbit.”

Such spooky sightings could prove a useful indicator of a possible impending earthquake when detected alongside other earthquake indicators. But not everyone envisions such forecasting benefits from earthquake lights. Bruce Presgrave, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center, told National Geographic that the infrequent occurrence of earthquake lights would likely limit their use in forecasts.”

Impending earthquakes have been sending us warning signals—and people are starting to listen
by Tom Bleier & Friedemann Freund / 1 Dec 2005

“Deep under Pakistan-administered Kashmir, rocks broke, faults slipped, and the earth shook with such violence on 8 October that more than 70 000 people died and more than 3 million were left homeless. But what happened in the weeks and days and hours leading up to that horrible event? Were there any signs that such devastation was coming?

We think there were, but owing to a satellite malfunction we can’t say for sure. How many lives could have been saved in that one event alone if we’d known of the earthquake 10 minutes in advance? An hour? A day? Currently, predictions are vague at best. By studying historical earthquake records, monitoring the motion of the earth’s crust by satellite, and measuring with strain monitors below the earth’s surface, researchers can project a high probability of an earthquake in a certain area within about 30 years. But short-term earthquake forecasting just hasn’t worked.

Accurate short-term forecasts would save lives and enable businesses to recover sooner. With just a 10-minute warning, trains could move out of tunnels, and people could move to safer parts of buildings or flee unsafe buildings. With an hour’s warning, people could shut off the water and gas lines coming into their homes and move to safety. In industry, workers could shut down dangerous processes and back up critical data; those in potentially dangerous positions, such as refinery employees and high-rise construction workers, could evacuate. Local government officials could alert emergency-response personnel and move critical equipment and vehicles outdoors. With a day’s warning, people could collect their families and congregate in a safe location, bringing food, water, and fuel with them. Local and state governments could place emergency teams and equipment strategically and evacuate bridges and tunnels.

“A model for pre-seismic ULF EMEs generated in the earthquake preparation area which resonantly interact with charged particles oscillating at bouncing frequency in the inner Van Allen radiation belt”

It seems that earthquakes should be predictable. After all, we can predict hurricanes and floods using detailed satellite imagery and sophisticated computer models. Using advanced Doppler radar, we can even tell minutes ahead of time that a tornado will form. Accurate earthquake warnings are, at last, within reach. They will come not from the mechanical phenomena—measurements of the movement of the earth’s crust—that have been the focus of decades of study, but, rather, from electromagnetic phenomena. And, remarkably, these predictions will come from signals gathered not only at the earth’s surface but also far above it, in the ionosphere.

“Demeter observations 7 days prior to the M8 Samoa Earthquake which occurred on September 29, 2009 at 17.48.11 UT (location 15.51°S, 187.97°E). From the top to the bottom, the panels show the electron density, the electron temperature, the O+ ion density, and the earthquake occurrences along the satellite orbit. The red triangles indicates the closest approach to the Samoa earthquake and the many aftershocks.”

For decades, researchers have detected strange phenomena in the form of odd radio noise and eerie lights in the sky in the weeks, hours, and days preceding earthquakes. But only recently have experts started systematically monitoring those phenomena and correlating them to earthquakes. A light or glow in the sky sometimes heralds a big earthquake. On 17 January 1995, for example, there were 23 reported sightings in Kobe, Japan, of a white, blue, or orange light extending some 200 meters in the air and spreading 1 to 8 kilometers across the ground. Hours later a 6.9-magnitude earthquake killed more than 5500 people. Sky watchers and geologists have documented similar lights before earthquakes elsewhere in Japan since the 1960s and in Canada in 1988.

“Observation performed by Demeter 3 days before the Haiti earthquake (magnitude 7) which occurs on January 12, 2010 at 21.53.09 UT (epicentre located at 18.451°N, 72.445°W). The red triangle in the bottom panel indicates the time when the satellite is just above the future epicentre.”

Another sign of an impending quake is a disturbance in the ultralow frequency (ULF) radio band—1 hertz and below—noticed in the weeks and more dramatically in the hours before an earthquake. Researchers at Stanford University, in California, documented such signals before the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which devastated the San Francisco Bay Area, demolishing houses, fracturing freeways, and killing 63 people.
“Main parameters of the Plasma Analyzer”

Both the lights and the radio waves appear to be electromagnetic disturbances that happen when crystalline rocks are deformed—or even broken—by the slow grinding of the earth that occurs just before the dramatic slip that is an earthquake. Although a rock in its normal state is, of course, an insulator, this cracking creates tremendous electric currents in the ground, which travel to the surface and into the air. The details of how the current is generated remain something of a mystery. One theory is that the deformation of the rock destabilizes its atoms, freeing a flood of electrons from their atomic bonds, and creating positively charged electron deficiencies, or holes.

One of us, Freund, working at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., demonstrated through laboratory rock-crushing experiments that the sundering of oxygen-to-oxygen bonds in the minerals of a fracturing rock could produce holes. These holes manage to propagate through rock up toward the surface, while the electrons flow down into Earth’s hot mantle. The movement of these charges, measured at 300 meters per second in the lab, causes changes in the rock’s magnetic field that propagate to the surface.

Another theory is that the fracture of rock allows ionized groundwater thousands of meters below the surface to move into the cracks. The flow of this ionized water lowers the resistance of the rock, creating an efficient pathway for an electric current. However, some researchers doubt that water can migrate quickly enough into the rock to create large enough currents; for this theory to be correct, the water would have to move hundreds of meters per second.

Whatever the cause, the currents generated alter the magnetic field surrounding the earthquake zone. Because the frequencies of these magnetic field changes are so low—with wavelengths of about 30 000 kilometers—they can easily penetrate kilometers of solid rock and be detected at the surface. Signals at frequencies above a few hertz, by contrast, would rapidly be attenuated by the ground and lost.

We can detect such electromagnetic effects in a number of ways. Earthquake forecasters can use ground-based sensors to monitor changes in the low-frequency magnetic field. They can also use these instruments to measure changes in the conductivity of air at the earth’s surface as charge congregates on rock outcroppings and ionizes the air. Using satellites, forecasters can monitor noise levels at extremely low frequency (ELF)—below 300 Hz. They can also observe the infrared light that some researchers suspect is emitted when the positive holes migrate to the surface and then recombine with electrons.

Scientists around the world are looking at all of these phenomena and their potential to predict earthquakes accurately and reliably. One group is at QuakeFinder, a Palo Alto, Calif.­based company cofounded by one of us, Bleier, in 2000. QuakeFinder researchers have begun directly monitoring magnetic field changes through a network of ground-based stations, 60 so far, in California [see photo]. In 2003, the company joined forces with Stanford and Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Sunnyvale, Calif., center to launch an experimental satellite designed to remotely monitor magnetic changes. A larger, more sensitive satellite is in the design stages. QuakeFinder hopes to develop an operational earthquake warning system within the next decade.


The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake near San Francisco sent out strong signals of magnetic disturbances fully two weeks before the 7.1-magnitude quake occurred. The idea that such signals existed was still a new one then, certainly not well enough accepted to justify a decision to issue a public warning. We happen to have excellent data from that quake. Stanford professor Anthony C. Fraser-Smith had buried a device called a single-axis search-coil magnetometer to monitor the natural background ULF magnetic-field strength at about 7 km from what turned out to be the center of that quake.

He selected this spot simply because it was in a quiet area, away from the rumblings of the Bay Area Rapid Transit trains and other man-made ULF noise. He monitored a range of frequencies from 0.01 to 10 Hz, essentially, the ULF band and the lower part of the ELF band. On 3 October, two weeks before the quake, Fraser-Smith’s sensors registered a huge jump in the ULF magnetic field at the 0.01-Hz frequency—about 20 times that of normal background noise at that frequency. Three hours before the quake, the 0.01-Hz signal jumped to 60 times normal. Elevated ULF signals continued for several months after the quake, a period rife with aftershocks, and then they disappeared.

The Loma Prieta quake was a stunning confirmation of the value of ULF signals in predicting earthquakes. This validation of the theory prompted Bleier to establish a network of earthquake sensors in the Bay Area, an effort that grew into QuakeFinder. Other researchers around the world who monitored changes in the magnetic field at ULF frequencies had noticed similar, but not as extreme, changes prior to other events. These observations occurred shortly before a 6.9-magnitude quake in Spitak, Armenia, in December 1988 and before a devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake in Guam in August 1993. Author Bleier recorded spikes of activity, four to five times normal size, in the 0.2- to 0.9-Hz range for 9 hours before a 6.0-magnitude earthquake in Parkfield, Calif., on 28 September 2003. Solar storms sometimes cause ripples in the magnetic field at those frequencies, but there had been no appreciable solar activity for six days prior to the quake.

In Taiwan, sensors that continuously monitor Earth’s normal magnetic field registered unusually large disturbances in a normally quiet signal pattern shortly before the 21 September 1999 Chi-Chi, Taiwan, earthquake, which measured 7.7. Using data from two sensors, one close to the epicenter, and one many kilometers away, researchers were able to screen out the background noise by subtracting one signal from the other, leaving only the magnetic field noise created by the imminent earthquake. Two teams, one in Taiwan and one in the United States, calculated that the currents required to generate those magnetic-field disturbances were between 1 million and 100 million amperes.

Besides detecting magnetic-field disturbances, ground-based sensors can record changes in the conductivity of the air over the quake zone caused by current welling up from the ground. These sensors can vary in form, but those we use are made from two 15-centimeter by 15-cm steel plates locked into position about 1 cm apart. A 50-volt dc battery charges one plate; the other is grounded. A resistor and voltmeter between the battery and the first plate senses any flow of current. Normally, the air gap between the plates acts as an insulator, and no current flows. If, however, there are charged particles in the air, a current begins to flow, creating a voltage drop across the resistor that registers with the voltmeter. The currents created in this way are not large—on the order of millivolts—but are detectable.

Last year QuakeFinder installed 25 ELF detectors with such air-conductivity sensors in California’s Mojave Desert to determine if increased air conductivity actually precedes earthquakes and contributes to the formation of the so-called earthquake lights [see photo below]. But to date, no large earthquakes have struck near these sensors, so no data are available yet.

Ground-based sensors are not the only mechanisms for monitoring the signals given off by impending earthquakes. Above the ground, satellite-based instruments are picking up interesting patterns in low-frequency signals and detecting other oddities. In 1989, after the devastating earthquake in Armenia, a Soviet Cosmos satellite observed ELF-frequency disturbances whenever it passed over a region slightly south of the epicenter. The activity persisted up to a month after the quake. Unfortunately, no data were gathered just prior to the initial quake. In 2003, the U.S. satellite QuakeSat detected a series of ELF bursts two months before and several weeks after a 22 December, 6.5-magnitude earthquake in San Simeon, Calif.

In June 2004, a multinational consortium lead by the French government launched a new earthquake detection satellite called DEMETER (for Detection of Electro-Magnetic Emissions Transmitted from Earthquake Regions). DEMETER, much more sensitive than earlier satellites, has already detected some unusual increases in ion density and ELF disturbances above large quakes around the world. Unfortunately, the satellite was malfunctioning in the days before October’s temblor in Kashmir.

“Demeter Payload in its “sunlight clothes” before its delivery to LATECOERE”

Infrared radiation detected by satellites may also prove to be a warning sign of earthquakes to come. Researchers in China reported several instances during the past two decades of satellite-based instruments registering an infrared signature consistent with a jump of 4 to 5 oC before some earthquakes. Sensors in NASA’s Terra Earth Observing System satellite registered what NASA called a “thermal anomaly” on 21 January 2001 in Gujarat, India, just five days before a 7.7-magnitude quake there; the anomaly was gone a few days after the quake [see satellite images, “Warm Before the Storm”]. In both cases, researchers believe, these sensors may have detected an infrared luminescence generated by the recombination of electrons and holes, not a real temperature increase.

“The anomaly disappears shortly after the quake January 28, 2001. The anomaly area appears yellow. The boxed star in the images indicates the earthquake’s epicenter.”

Even the existing Global Positioning System may serve as part of an earthquake warning system. Sometimes the charged particles generated under the ground in the days and weeks before an earthquake change the total electron content of the ionosphere—a region of the atmosphere above about 70 km, containing charged particles. If the ground is full of positively charged holes, it would attract electrons from the ionosphere, decreasing the airborne electron concentration over an area as much as 100 km in diameter and pulling the ionosphere closer to Earth.

This change in electron content can be detected by alterations in the behavior of GPS navigation and other radio signals. Each GPS satellite transmits two signals. The relative phase difference between the two signals when they reach a receiver changes, depending on the electron content of the ionosphere, so tracking these phase changes at a stationary receiver allows researchers to monitor changes in the ionosphere. Researchers in Taiwan monitored 144 earthquakes between 1997 and 1999, and they found that for those registering 6.0 and higher the electron content of the ionosphere changed significantly one to six days before the earthquakes.

“Plasma Analyzer Package (PAP) installed within the chamber. Left panel shows the payload rear view. Right panel shows the payload front view.”

Earthquake forecasters can also watch for changes in the ionosphere by monitoring very-low-frequency (3- to 30-kilohertz) and high-frequency (3- to 30-megahertz) radio transmissions. The strength of a radio signal at a receiver station changes with the diurnal cycle: it is greater at night than in daylight, as anyone who listens to late-night radio from far-off stations knows. The altitude of the ionosphere, which moves lower as the positive holes migrate to the surface, also has an effect on radio signals; the lower the ionosphere, the stronger the signals. So at dawn on an earthquake day, a curve drawn to represent the drop-off in radio signal strength will appear markedly different from the normal curve for that signal at that location.

The connection between large earthquakes and electromagnetic phenomena in the ground and in the ionosphere is becoming increasingly solid. Researchers in many countries, including China, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States, are now contributing to the data by monitoring known earthquake zones. Using these phenomena for earthquake prediction will take a combination of satellite and ground-based sensors. Satellites can cover most of the planet, but at ELF frequencies signal sources are hard to pinpoint. Ground-based monitors have smaller detection ranges, up to 50 km, depending on the sensitivity of the magnetometer and the size of the quake, but are far more precise. With a network of such sensors, forecasters looking at the amplitude of signals received at each sensor might be able to locate a quake within 10 to 20 km. This means that, for an area as large as California, accurate earthquake detection might require that forecasters distribute 200 to 300 magnetic-field and air-conductivity sensors on the ground.

QuakeFinder and other groups are trying to get funding to integrate space- and ground-based sensors to detect all these precursor signals—electronically detected ELF and ULF magnetic-field changes, ionospheric changes, infrared luminescence, and air-conductivity changes—along with traditional mechanical and GPS monitoring of movements of the earth’s crust. With such a broad range of phenomena being monitored, spikes registered by different monitors detecting different types of signals would make forecasts more reliable. Forecasters may then be able to issue graduated warnings within weeks, days, and hours, declaring increasing threat levels as the evidence from different sensors begins pointing in the same direction.

Useful as such an earthquake warning system would be, we’re not ready to deploy one yet. For one thing, the scientific underpinnings of the phenomena need to be better understood before public officials and others have confidence in the data. On this front, author Freund has been investigating the theory that currents are generated by breaking oxygen-to-oxygen bonds in rocks under stress. He has experimented with various rock samples, demonstrating at the laboratory scale that cracking rock can produce positive charges, which, on a geophysical scale, could form significant ground currents and infrared emissions. Other rock-crushing experiments are under way in Japan and Russia. In Mexico, meanwhile, researchers are focusing on understanding the related changes in the ionosphere.

A working prediction system won’t come cheaply, but it’s nothing compared with the loss of life and the billions of dollars in damage that earthquakes can cause. The 200 to 300 ground-based sensors necessary to blanket California alone will cost $5 million to $10 million. A dedicated satellite with magnetic, infrared, and other sensors would cost $10 million to $15 million to build and launch.

Meanwhile, a few technical challenges remain to be solved. At satellite altitudes, space itself is full of noise, compromising the data gathered. The data must be digitally processed with filters and pattern-matching software, still being refined. And down on the ground, man-made noise fills the electromagnetic spectrum. Researchers are attempting to use differential processing of two distant sensors to reduce or eliminate such interference. We expect these problems, both technical and financial, to be worked out within the next 10 years. Then governments in active earthquake areas such as California, China, Japan, Russia, and Taiwan could install warning systems as early as 2015, saving lives and minimizing the chaos of earthquakes.”

About the Authors
Tom Bleier is CEO of QuakeFinder, in Palo Alto, Calif. He previously spent 37 years developing, building, and testing defense and commercial satellites and ground-control systems, most recently for Stellar Solutions Inc., a satellite-systems engineering company, also in Palo Alto.

Friedemann Freund is a senior researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif., and is also a professor in the physics department of San Jose State University, in California. His research focuses on how stress can cause electric current in rocks.”

Friedemann Freund — The Future of forecasting Earthquakes

“Friedemann Freund’s research has elucidated such important phenomena as the fact that rocks under stress behave like batteries that can produce currents deep within the crust of the Earth. These are not piddling currents, either – they can be hundreds of thousand amperes, maybe as large as several million of amperes, sufficient to be measured above ground, and perhaps even from orbit.

Friedemann, how did the science of earthquake forecasting attract your attention?
I became interested in earthquake research only about 15 years ago. I came to it from basic mineral physics – I wanted to understand defects in minerals that affect the physical properties of rocks when put under stress. Of course, our tectonically dynamic planet puts rocks under enormous stresses all the time. They wax and wane. Eventually, they cause rocks to rupture, generating shock waves that can bring down buildings or generate tsunamis which can run across entire oceans or even around the world. It is mind boggling to realize a magnitude 9 earthquake releases the mechanical energy equivalent to the total energy released during the explosion of over 2,000,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs. The conventional seismological community is unable to derive early warnings for even the largest magnitude earthquakes, such as the 2011 magnitude 9 quake that devastated parts of Japan or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra. My work centers on the subtle, but undeniable non-seismic signals generated when stresses are building up deep in the Earth to the level where rocks will eventually rupture.

How did your research into mineral defects lead you to the study of pre-earthquake signals?
I became interested in defects in crystals many years ago while in Germany. I chose magnesium oxide, the simplest of all oxide materials. My peers at the university were skeptical, saying there was nothing left to find out by studying MgO. However, they were dead wrong. My work led me to a defects, which everybody had overlooked for decades or misinterpreted as due to some unspecified “dirt” or contamination. One of the unusual features of these defects is that, when activated, they increase the electrical conductivity of MgO by up to 8 orders of magnitude – an enormous change. I started to characterize these amazing defects with every physical technique on the books and began to work with my son Mino, when he was a PhD student in physics at the ETH in Zürich, Switzerland. Together we developed a new analytical technique designed to learn more about those defects, which by then had been given their own name, “positive holes”. We used an underutilized fundamental physical properties of insulating materials, namely dielectric polarization at the limit of 0 Hz.

In the mid-1990s, turning my attention toward studying rocks, I soon found out that minerals in common rocks have the same type of defects as my old MgO crystals. One day it occurred to me that, by mechanically stressing rocks, I might be able to generate electricity. This idea turned out to be correct but it took me another 10 years before I came up with a practical procedure that has since become a benchmark. Working with two post-docs at NASA Ames and NASA Goddard, I was able to demonstrate in 2006 that, when we apply moderate stress to one end of a block of granite about 2 feet in length, we could draw a substantial electric current from the other end. This current was due to positive holes flowing down the stress gradient. As predicted in a theoretical paper I had published in the mid-1980s, I showed in 2009, together with a group of students, that air molecules become massively ionized at the rock surface, when we stressed rocks real hard. We observed tiny sparks flying off the corners and edges of the rocks because thousands of small corona discharges were firing up.


Are your findings currently being used in the field to detect unusual ionization levels in the atmosphere?
I’ve been working with Tom Bleier, who leads Quakefinder, the humanitarian R&D division of Stellar Solutions. Tom has installed over a hundred air conductivity sensors alongside sensor that detect ultralow frequency (ULF) waves along California’s San Andreas Fault, along the coast of Peru, in Greece and Taiwan. Whenever there was a moderate or big earthquake not far from one of the Quakefinder stations, there was indeed a large increase in air conductivity. When we saw the effect for the first time, our sensor was overwhelmed by the amount of ionization. This air ionization at the ground level and the upward expansion of the heavily ion-laden air, probably up to the stratosphere, causes distinct changes in the ionosphere some 200-300 km above us. These are very complex processes, widely reported in the scientific literature as potential pre-earthquake indicators. I was fascinated to begin understanding how these processes work. I’m pleased to see that this work is slowly receiving coverage in the literature and the press.

How is your research expanding in scope?
In reading seemingly unrelated reports, I began to wonder if the positive hole charge carriers I had discovered some 25 years prior could be responsible for the bewildering variety of signals that have been reported to occur in the natural environment prior to major earthquakes, including effects on humans and animals. To me, the answer quickly became Yes! In June 2011, in a session chaired by my son Mino at a brain mapping conference in San Francisco, California, I gave a talk, in which I pointed to the ionosphere. The ionosphere, which wraps around the globe at an altitude of 100-1000 km, carries a set of standing waves in the ULF end of the electromagnetic frequency spectrum known as Schumann Resonances.

The Schumann Resonances are constantly fed by lighting strikes in the lower atmosphere. The reason is that every lighting bolt that hits the Earth emits electromagnetic radiation from very high frequencies, which one can actually hear in the old radios as a crackling noise from distant lightening strikes, to very low frequencies. One component, around 8 Hz, is the frequency that an electromagnetic (EM) wave needs to travel around the entire Earth. It can thus form a standing wave. I became interested in the influence these extremely low frequency waves might have on living organisms. It turns out that our brains also emit EM radiation at sharply defined frequencies around 8 Hz. Prior to an earthquake, however, the earth sends out bursts of low and extremely low frequencies that cover the entire spectrum from 0.001 Hz to 100 Hz. These EM waves come from the belly of the earth. There are very interesting studies that link psychological and physiological phenomena in humans and animals to the approach of large earthquakes.

What are some examples of psychological or physiological phenomena exhibited prior to an earthquake?
Evidence is mounting that ultra low frequency and extremely low frequency radiation emitted in the natural environment can have profound effects on human and animal health and behavior prior to an earthquake. An excellent paper has been written by Alexander Shitov, a professor at a regional university in Southern Siberia. He characterized a number of incidents that occurred prior to the 2003 magnitude 7.5 Chuya earthquake in the part of Southern Siberia, where he lives. One of the aspects Dr. Shitov looked at was medical records. He showed that about two weeks before this earthquake, there was an unusual increase in the number of people flocking to hospital emergency rooms seeking medical help. Interestingly, the medical records show that the reasons were related to neurological disorders – hypertension, vegetative vascular dystonia, epilepsy – pointing to something that the Earth produced prior to this large earthquake. Other conditions showing up only after the quake, such as acute respiratory infections and gastro enteric diseases, can be explained by the aftermath of such a natural disaster, dust in the air and polluted water.

“Emergency visits prior to Magnitude 7.5 Chuya earthquake in 2003 (Shitov, 2010)”

Another example of interesting pre-earthquake behavior came about through pure chance. In the spring of 2008, a group of medical doctors at the University of Chengdu in Sichuan, China, were monitoring the circadian rhythm of laboratory mice. On May 12, 2008, in the midst of their experiment, the devastating magnitude 8.0 Wenchuan earthquake occurred less than 100 kilometers from the university. The researchers continued their experiment but then found out that three to four days before the earthquake, the circadian rhythm of the mice had become perturbed. The mice became inactive, as if they were hunkering down and wanted to hide. This behavior continued for a few days after the earthquake, until a normal behavioral pattern re-emerged. A friend of mine from China sent me the EM spectrum recorded at the same university. It shows a large ULF emissions two or three days before the Wenchuan earthquake – at the same time the laboratory mice exhibited their strikingly abnormal behavior.

In a third example Rachel Grant, then Ph.D. biology student at The Open University in England, was in Italy in March-April 2009 in her third year of studying the mating behavior of toads. At its peak the mating activity is known to be essentially uninterruptable. However, Rachel suddenly noted in early April that the toads disappeared from the lake, which was their mating grounds. For two days she could not locate any toads, even not in the wet grass downstream from the lake, Then the deadly 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit approximately 70 kilometers away and heavily damaged the town of L’Aquila. Three days later the toads returned. Strange and interesting things are observed before major earthquakes. I find this area of study a wonderful challenge in which to understand the complexities of the world and how Life on this Earth is influenced by processes that originate in the sun and by processes that originate deep within our planet.

What do you currently consider your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is to convince the scientific community, which is mostly hunkered down in high specialized areas of study, that there are natural phenomena that require a broadly interdisciplinary or – as a friend of mine recently said – a transdisciplinary approach. Many in mainstream science have a tendency to dismiss observable phenomena, which they don’t understand, as questionable or worse. The work I’m doing upsets some deeply engrained notions. There are geoscientists who just don’t want to spend time understanding why positive hole charge carriers, which I discovered while studying MgO single crystals, also occur in common rocks, with which they have worked during all their careers. They reject my work out of hand exactly because it provides new explanations for phenomena, which they had accepted as “established knowledge” for decades. This is my biggest challenge to overcome this defensive wall that mainstream scientists often tend to erect around themselves when confronted with something that threatens the comfort of their existing knowledge.

Why should the general public care about your research?
The general public is made to believe that seismologists are the only people who really study and understand earthquakes. No doubt, seismologists have done wonderful work over the past hundred years. They look at a huge number of earthquakes, they study past earthquakes in great detail, and then they construct elaborate statistical models that should predict when the next earthquake will happen. However, in this retrospective analysis earthquakes can never be “predict”. All you get are wide uncertainty margins like the 30-year uncertainty that is reflected in most property insurance policies.

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“Collapsed building in San Francisco as a result of 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.”

I don’t want to look backwards at past earthquakes and use statistics to predict future earthquakes. This doesn’t work. I want to train my senses and my instruments on the Earth and try to understand what happens as large earthquakes “get ready” to strike. For this we need to look primarily at the stresses, which are building up deep below, 10, 20, 35 kilometers below the surface of the earth. The question to be posed is simple: Can we pick up and understand the signals, which are produced during the build-up of stresses below and detectable at the Earth surface? Since these signals are bewilderingly diverse, ranging from ionospheric perturbations to unusual animal behavior and everything in between, it is important to understand whether and how they are connected to each other on a physics level. If we can show that atmospheric phenomena and ionospheric perturbations and phenomena in the biologic world, such as animal behavior, are linked to fundamental processes taking place deep in the Earth crust when tectonic stresses build up, then – and only then – can we advance our knowledge to recognize the conditions under which major earthquakes get ready to strike.

The word “prediction” is often used to postulate that one must be able to say exactly, with narrow error margins, when and where an earthquake will occur and what its magnitude will be. However, it is preposterous to believe that this is possible. It is as impossible as to predict where exactly the next lightning strike will hit during a thunderstorm. However, on the basis of my work, I know that we’ll be able to reach a point in time – maybe only a few years into the future – where we’ll be able to issue public alerts stating, “Stresses at a particular fault seem to be building up deep in the earth’s crust and there is an increased chance of an earthquake within the next few days.” Reaching this point will have an impact. It will save lives and help minimize property damage. It will mark a complete turn-around from the present state of affairs, where nobody, in particular no mainstream seismologist, can forecast the approach of a seismically dangerous situation.

How has your lifelong study into the physics of Earth influenced your thoughts on the possibility of life on other planets?
Wherever in the universe there is a planet with land and liquid water and an active weathering system, I predict that this planet will slowly but inextricably become oxidized. Even without life and without photosynthesis this planet will acquire oxygen in its atmosphere. Carl Sagan’s proposal of the “pale blue dot” being a symbol of life in the “blackness of space” is a beautiful metaphor. Life is not necessary to create a pale blue dot. However, I should hasten to say that the same weathering process, which injects oxygen into the near-surface environment, will also release organic molecules, specifically complex molecules such as suitable for self-organization and, hence, for the origin of life.


As a youth, were there any books or movies that influenced your career?
Strangely enough, Velikovsky’s book, Worlds in Collision, published in 1950, fired up my imagination. Velikovsky was a colorful character. He had this idea that Venus was once a wandering planet-sized object that passed near Earth not long ago. He proposed a near-collision between Earth and Venus resulted in creating many of the floods and natural catastrophes reported in old writings from different cultures continents apart. He thought that, when Venus was captured by the sun and incorporated into the solar system, it became a planet. That was such a challenging idea to accept. Even if I didn’t want to accept it, how would I be able to refute it? I was intrigued by the scientific process.

If you had a one-year sabbatical to work on a pet project, what would it be?
I’d like to revisit some ideas I had about 30 years ago. At the time my work had led me to become interested in proton conductivity. I developed a complete semiconductor physics of protons carrying electric currents as they relate to certain chemical processes. I would like to see whether my basic understanding of proton conductivity can be applied to better understand to the functioning of the living cell. Our cells have an amazing capability of transporting protons through the cell membranes. Peter Mitchell who proposed an elaborate but basically “unphysical” mechanism for this transmembrane proton transport received a Nobel Prize. I challenge his idea. If I had six months or a year, or if someone would give me the money to hire a capable young Post-Doc, I’d love to see how far I can take my fundamental understanding of how protons conduct electricity and how they couple to the flow of electrons — a fascinating project, if only I had the time to do it.”

Detecting Double Layers
by Stephen Smith  /  May 03, 2010

“…An electric current in plasma generates a magnetic field that will constrict the current flow. The constricted channel is known as a Bennett pinch, or z-pinch. The “pinched” filaments of electric current remain coherent over large distances, spiraling around each other, forming helical structures that can transmit power through space. Plasma physicists identify those threads of electricity in almost every body in the Universe. The cometary “tail” of Venus is “stringy” as NASA scientists describe it.

“When the solar wind dies down, an outer layer of Venus’s atmosphere billows outward (illustrated on right), making the second planet from the sun look like a comet.”

The glow of planetary nebulae resolve into strings and intricate webs. Herbig-Haro stars and some galaxies often reveal braided filaments. These filaments are Birkeland currents, and they are only the visible portions of enormous electric circuits. The remainder of the galactic circuit generates magnetic fields that can be mapped. High-density currents flow out along the galactic spin axis and form double layers that can sometimes be seen as radio and X-ray lobes around active galaxies. The currents then spread out around the circumference, returning to the core along the spiral arms. Every element in a galactic circuit radiates energy, indicating that they are powered through coupling with larger circuits. Galaxies appear to occur in strings, so the extent of the larger circuits can be inferred.

Plasma’s behavior is driven by conditions in those circuits. Fluctuations can form double layers with large potential voltages between them. The electric forces in double layers can be much stronger than gravitational and mechanical forces. Double layers separate plasma into cells and filaments that can have different temperatures or densities. Double layers emit radio waves over a broad band of frequencies. They can sort galactic material into regions of like composition and condense it. They can accelerate charged particles to cosmic ray energies.

Double layers can explode, releasing more energy than is locally present. This effect can be seen in stellar flares or so-called “nova” outbursts. This vision of the cosmos sees various components coupled to and driven by circuits at ever larger scales. Electrons and other charged particles accelerating through intense electric fields radiate “shouts” of energy in many bandwidths. Changing conditions within the Birkeland current generators of some galaxies means that the radiation patterns will change over time.”



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