NASA Goddard Space Flight CenterThe atmosphere above the Tohoku epicenter heated up in the days before the 9.1 earthquake.
Scientists may have found a way to predict earthquakes.
According to a team of NASA and Russian space and physical scientists, in the days before the March 11 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, the atmosphere directly above the epicenter rapidly heated up.
In a presentation delivered in Vienna, the researchers presented data indicating that starting on March 3, the electron count in the ionosphere – the upper part of the atmosphere – increased dramatically.
The count reached its peak three days before the temblor struck.
Ouzounov and others think movements and stress in the earth can set off a complex series of detectable physical and chemical changes in the atmosphere and ionosphere.
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He said gases such as radon, carbon dioxide and hydrogen escape from the earth's crust as the earth begins to move under the stress. The gases escape into the atmosphere and climb into the ionosphere. It's in these upper areas that the gases ionize and begin to create heat.
And using satellite data and atmospheric monitors, researchers can see these changes as they happen.
Indeed, Ouzounov's team has looked at 24 significant earthquakes in Japan, of a magnitude of 7 or greater, and all showed the telltale signs in the days before the quakes occurred.
That data will be released later this year, he said.
Other anecdotal information seems to support the theory that atmospheric changes may occur before a major earthquake. For instance, in the days before the Haiti earthquake, French spacecraft showed a significant increase in ultra-low-frequency radio signals above the epicenter.
“Earthquake preparation is a complex physical and chemical process,” said Sergey Pulinets, a geophysicist with the Moscow Center for Ionosphere Monitoring, in an interview at the European Geosciences Conference in April.
Pulinets co-authored the paper with Ouzounov and others.
“It starts from the earth, moves up to the atmosphere and then to the ionosphere in the few weeks, days and hours before” we feel the shaking, he said.
“When you have a release of energy that is equivalent to several thousand nuclear bombs, and earth is living matter and is storing that stress, that stress should manifest itself in some way,” he said. “When you have deformation, the formation of cracks and faults, you change the system of gas migration” from the earth into the atmosphere.
But not everyone agrees.
Friedmann Freund, another NASA scientist and a researcher at San Jose State University, says the observed atmospheric changes have nothing to do with radon and other gases escaping from the earth.
"There is no evidence that links radon emanation closely with seismic or pre-seismic events," he said. "There is another much more powerful, much more general and observationally supported process which causes massive air ionization, when stresses build up deep below earthquakes."
He says the electromagnetic changes are caused by extreme pressure on the rocks themselves. His theory is simple: If you squeeze a block of granite rock hard enough, it’ll become electrically active.
In 2007, Freund and others set up a laboratory experiment [PDF] in which they squeezed a rock really hard, while detecting the emissions around it. As soon as pressure was applied to the rock, the electrical field around it changed.