- Tectonic plate boundaries are red lines, major faults brown ones and the Tohoku earthquake is the black stars. The red circles show the location of radiation anomalies in the atmoshere.
It sounds like a plotline from The X-Files: Shortly before the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami tore into Japan this March, the air high above the country began to heat up.
An anomaly was first noted on March 3 by low-orbit satellites, which recorded an increase in electron density in the ionosphere, the atmosphere’s highest sector. The numbers of electrons multiplied until they came to a crest on March 8, three days before the quake. Then a spike in infrared radiation developed, creating a hot patch in the ionosphere right above the quake’s epicenter on March 11. After the shaking subsided, the air settled down again to its normal state.
This might sound like something you’d suffer through from a guy in a Roswell, N.M., bar wearing a tinfoil turban. But scientists have been on the case of so-called “pre-earthquake atmospheric transient phenomena” for the past two decades. Disturbances in electron densities and temperature fluctuations above earth were observed by the DEMETER microsatellite before earthquakes in Haiti in 2010, in Chile the same year, in Samoa and Italy in 2009 and in China in 2008. While finding a satisfactory explanation for these events has been difficult, the theories are fascinating – and a new one might be the most mind-screwing concept yet.
In a presentation given last week in Vienna, U.S. and Russian scientists aired their belief that gas escaping from the ground prior to a big quake causes warm zones in the ionosphere. Led by Dimitar Ouzounov of NASA and Chapman University, the team said that seismic activity releases a number of gases buried in the earth’s crust into the air, such as radon and carbon dioxide. Once the gases drift into the extreme environment at the top of the atmosphere, they become ionized and release heat.
The unsexy term for this concept (or extremely sexy, if you’re a nerd), the “Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling Mechanism,” holds a wealth of promise for earthquake-detection technology that could save thousands of lives. Just continuously monitor the ionosphere for hot zones and tell folks living underneath them to maybe take a long vacation.
However, not all scientists are putting their weight behind the gaseous quake theory. One voice of dissent comes from within NASA itself. According to this story, astrobiologist Friedemann Freund believes in a simpler explanation for the atmospheric turbulence preceding temblors. It has to do with squeezing rocks.
In 2007, Freund published a paper about his adventures in the lab with a block of anorthosite from Larvik, Norway. It was an "igneous monomineralic feldspar rock composed mainly of Ca-rich plagioclase labradorite,” if you’re wondering. The scientist studied the emissions this rock made when it was left unmolested. Then he started squeezing it and noted an immediate increase in the rock’s radiation levels. It seems like the pressure itself created electromagnetic changes; in the same way, he suggested, massive tectonic plates pressing against each other could be altering the electric composition of the atmosphere, creating heat anomalies.