In this images of infrared radiation in the days before the March 11 earthquake, the red circle indicates the epicenter and the red lines are tectonic faults.
What’s the News: Scientists analyzing the March 11 earthquake in Japan will have the benefit of some of the most sensitive and comprehensive atmospheric data yet, thanks to satellites monitoring climate. And a team has now reported a strange effect—a sudden spike in the temperature in the atmosphere above the quake site—detected just before the event. If the spike was related to the quake, and other earthquakes do the same thing, it might help scientists predict such cataclysms in the future. How the Heck:
The team’s analysis, which has not yet been published in a journal yet (only in the non-peer reviewed arXiv), finds that before the earthquake, the number of electrons in the ionosphere above the epicenter increased dramatically, peaking three days before, and the infrared radiation (that is, the heat) grew as well, peaking just hours before.
This finding is consistent with the idea that the planet’s atmosphere and geologic activity are linked through something known as the lithosphere-atmosphere-ionosphere coupling mechanism. As the arXiv Blog explains, this idea holds that when a tectonic plate is undergoing great stress before an earthquake, it releases radon gas. The gas ionizes the air, releasing lots of loose electrons, which then go on to cause the condensation of water, a process that releases heat.
So far, the connection doesn’t seem like an easily dismissible coincidence: After analyzing more than 100 other earthquakes, the researchers have found that large (>5.5 magnitude), shallow (<31 miles below the surface) quakes had similar correlations with atmospheric ionization and heat.
Not So Fast: Predicting earthquakes is fertile ground for cranks and plain-old bad hypotheses (Water running uphill! Animals acting weird!), and it’s easy to jump to conclusions with too little data. While the team hasn’t made any outlandish claims, a number of follow-up analyses are required to see whether this effect is reliably connected to quakes. This spike needs to be seen before more earthquakes, and it needs to be clear that it only happens when an event like this is imminent. If similar jumps in atmospheric ionization and heat can happen in the absence of a quake---that is, if there are lots of false positives---they’re no good as predictors. The Future Holds: The paper still needs to be peer-reviewed and published, and that process will put the team’s analysis to the test. Once it’s over that hurdle, the scientists will continue looking for signs that this effect is linked to other large quakes, collaborating with others around the world to collect the necessary data. And scientists are hoping to meet this summer in a workshop to discuss this work, one researcher told LiveScience
. References: Dimitar Ouzounov, Sergey Pulinets, Alexey Romanov, Alexander Romanov, Konstantin Tsybulya, Dimitri Davidenko, Menas Kafatos, Patrick Taylor. arxiv.org/abs/1105.2841
: Atmosphere-Ionosphere Response to the M9 Tohoku Earthquake Revealed by Joined Satellite and Ground Observations. Preliminary Results. Image credit: Ouzounov, et al.