Media outlets are picking up and recirculating a thin story about an earthquake light (EQL) that was caught on video (actually, a video recording another screen) from the Aksu, Xinjiang, China quake on January 23. As now happens every time, this is not an earthquake light – it is damage to electrical equipment from the shaking that creates a flash. The video of a distance flash while the foreground shows shaking follows the pattern that repeats with nearly every modern quake. The video was shared via syndication, and various news websites around the world repost the video and spread the misinformation with no context or critical reporting.
Earthquake lights may be a genuine phenomenon that occurs only under very specific geologic conditions. If they are natural at all, they are rare and have not been adequately documented in order to make any scientific determinations as to their cause. However, all blue or white flashes that regularly result from broken wires and exploding transformers associated with an earthquake are more often caught on cameras and shared as representing a natural phenomenon.
The overuse of the term, earthquake light, is having the effect of negating and conflating information about natural EQLs. The term is being diluted and changed so that it no longer means what it originally intended. It now means something much less interesting. News is making us dumber.
For more on EQLs, see my other posts on Earthquake Lights