In 1982, atmospheric physicist Luiza Moiseyevna Fishkova spent her nights measuring the atmospheric nightglow from the Abastumani Astrophysical Observatory on Mt. Khanobili in Georgia. On the morning of January 25, something interesting happened — an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.1 occurred 55 kilometers from the observatory, five hours after a particularly strong nightglow. The incident grabbed the attention of Fishkova and her team, who took more and more data to try and determine if there was a real connection, or if it was just a fluke.
It turns out there was a connection, and Fishkova’s paper, “Relationship between night airglow and seismic activity” in Annales Geophysicae is still being discussed today, says current director of the observatory Maya Todua at TEDxTbilisi.
“Before an earthquake happens, there’s a huge preparation underground,” Todua says. “The tectonic plates move against each other and they build pressure. This happens over several hours, or even days, before the major shock. Earth’s electric field changes from this. It sends a kind of noise into the atmosphere … acoustic-gravity waves. They travel in the atmosphere and make free electrons to strike ions, make atoms and release photons. This sudden release of a huge number of photons — this is what makes this nightglow shine.”
But though it’s been decades since Fishkova’s observation, a lot about this connection is still not understood. For example, though nightglow can be a warning for an upcoming earthquake, “we don’t know where the [earthquake] is going to happen,” Todua says. “There are several international programs that are going to study the connection between airglow and earthquakes. This work has the potential to lead to precise prediction of earthquakes, which will save a lot of lives.”
Todua says she’s proud that Fishkova did her work at Abastumani, but she warns that in order for our knowledge of the world to grow, work like Fishkova’s done at lesser-known institutions like Abastumani must not be overlooked, but appreciated and expanded.
“We must not lose the knowledge that was generated in the past by scientists like Luiza Fishkova,” Todua says. “We must rediscover their discoveries.”
To learn more, watch Todua’s whole talk below: