Claims of blue flashes and floating balls of light were associated with the strong quake of September 2023 in Morocco and almost every sizable earthquake since.
After every big earthquake these days, it is inevitable that several people on social media will post a photo or video of what they claim are anomalous luminous phenomena associated with the quake. It is usually security footage that shows bright blue flashes in the distance, never close up. Such lights on the horizon typically occur seconds before or during when the shaking is felt at the camera site. They are immediately labeled “earthquake lights” and some confident commenter asserts that they are a “well-known” and “real” phenomenon that is a result of electrical charges released by the shaking.
This is probably entirely wrong.
It happened soon after the Moroccan quake that took place before midnight on 8 September which serves as a good example of how the media promotes this misinformation every time.
I have collected and reviewed as much genuine research as I could about earthquake lights (EQLs) for many years. I have an alert whenever earthquake lights pop up in the news, and it pops a lot as news sources quickly pick up on the videos and associated claims circulating on social media.
The New York Times was one of the first to publish about the Morocco quake, using quotes from a physicist specializing in deformation and failure of materials, and from a retired seismologist who wrote about earthquake phenomenon. The writer also referenced the USGS’s info on EQLs. But the quotes felt out of context and not specific to the slim evidence presented for the Morocco event.
Video of blue flashes
The main video circulating associated with this quake showed two flashes of white-blue light on the horizon. No shaking was apparent in the video. The video shows a time of 23:08:24 for the first flash at the far left edge, and then 2 seconds later there is another flash slightly farther from the left edge.
It is not clear where this video was taken. The language barrier is a typical hindrance to finding out useful details. The Morocco earthquake took place at 22:11:01 UTC. This does correspond to the hour of this time zone, but not the minutes, which is two minutes earlier. It’s not unreasonable to assume the camera clock was slightly off.
These flashes look very much like electrical arcing/flashes from wiring, identical to almost every EQL video that has made the rounds in the past few years. We know electrical wiring and transformers disconnect and arc from the ground shaking, and this does create the bright white-blue light. The flashes are most often followed immediately by a power outage, evident in some videos. But not this one. Unfortunately, the video cuts off after 27 seconds; we can’t see if subsequent shaking occurred. The bright flashes appear to be very far away. Light travels much faster than earthquake pressure waves, so I’m not surprised by the lack of shaking, really.
Perhaps the flashes are anomalous. I’m inclined to go with the simpler and established cause – that we are seeing a result of electrical infrastructure failure. Regardless, the single unverified video leaves plenty of questions, so this is not a reliable piece of evidence. We don’t appear to have corresponding video evidence that could confirm either the electric wire idea or a potential anomaly.
News sources picked up the claims
Major news sources quoted the same sources as the NYT or added comments from John Derr and Friedman Freund, the two primary English-speaking experts on EQLs. Considering the history of this topic and the questionable nature of this video, I would be shocked if any seismologist would confidently express that the lights in this video were EQLs. The alternative down-to-earth explanation is far more reasonable.
Some, but not most, of the coverage on this story included the mundane explanation. But it was buried in a short paragraph near the end after the “mystery” of EQLs was hyped.
EQLs seem to have become the umbrella term for any lights or glowing in the sky coincident with an earthquake. EQLs, however, if they are a real geological occurrence, are complex and the manifestation is extremely rare.
In other reports of EQL across the world and through time, people report sightings of luminous phenomena that do not resemble single flashes. There are pseudo-EQLs that can be explained by other causes unrelated to earthquakes. It certainly seems that false ideas about EQLs have become contagious thanks to social media. People have heard so much about luminous anomalies that they jump to the wrong conclusions about stuff in the sky.
Additional questionable evidence
The second video circulated from Morocco claimed to show hovering light balls in the sky in Marrakech. Here is a screenshot.
There is no confirmation of date or time on this video. These lights could have other prosaic explanations. They look like floating paper lanterns to me. Had the lights been seen traveling nearer to the ground or exiting the ground, I’d be impressed. This does not impress me. It’s not useful as evidence.
Fake news always follows natural disasters
When a natural disaster strikes, people are often desperate for news and reasons. These days coverage of disasters is inevitably accompanied by misattributed and fake images and videos and conspiracy ideas. This event was no exception. Several of the recycled social media claims were also used for the Turkiye-Syria quake back in February. People are either careless or deliberately recirculate inappropriate content, showing damage or dramatic rescues, because the topic is highly emotional. People will click. And then they will share. Even though we have the ability to show the claims are bogus, the lies continue and are detrimental to society.
TikTok, that most efficient and super-popular misinformation generator/spreader, was at the forefront distributing a CGI video (originally from 2020) showing swirling lights in the sky that generated a “laser beam” that commenters asserted caused the Morocco earthquake. The clearly manufactured video does not even depict a city in Morocco. The video was referenced as depicting an alien invasion or attributed to the HAARP research project. HAARP has been perpetually misunderstood and used as a “cause” of all kinds of disasters. None of it has any basis in fact.
The ubiquity of attributing natural events to nefarious entities reveals not only the sense of distrust society has with science and government projects, but a general sense of how little the public understands nature. It’s jaw-dropping that people can’t recognize such obvious fakery. We live in Strange Times. If you take away anything from this, please be skeptical of claims of dramatic anomalies and bizarre fringe claims related to natural disasters. People are already having a hard enough time in these affected areas. The last thing we need is more complete bullshit.