A team of Russian and American scientists is attracting worldwide attention with a paper that finds that Japan's devastating March earthquake was preceded by marked atmospheric changes near the quake's epicenter immediately before it struck. The finding is the latest in more than a decade of research looking into the possibility that stresses in the Earth's crust before a major quake may be connected to pronounced changes in the atmosphere from the surface to its uppermost layers.
Spoiler alert: This does not mean scientists have found a way to predict earthquakes. Yet.
In a preliminary (non-peer-reviewed) paper released this week in Vienna, the team working in Southern California, Maryland, and several Russian institutions said that a rise in atmospheric temperatures was recorded over the epicenter of the Tohoku earthquake, just off the northeast coast of the island of Honshu, in the days immediately before the 9.0 shake occurred on March 11. The quake and subsequent tsunami killed 24,000 people in Japan and caused damage in much of the Pacific basin.
The researchers are led by Dimitar Ouzounov, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Southern California's Chapman University who also works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Ouzounov has collaborated with others on several other papers that have documented anomalies in atmospheric conditions near quake epicenters. One paper documents rising atmospheric temperatures before two California quakes in September 2004: a 6.0 quake near Parkfield, on the San Andreas Fault northeast of Paso Robles, and a 5.5 tremor in Bodie, north of Mono Lake. Ouzounov told the Christian Science Monitor that he and his colleagues "have crunched data for more than 100 quakes in Asia and Taiwan ... and have found similar correlations for earthquakes with magnitudes bigger than 5.5 and depths less than 31 miles."
So what exactly did the team find when they looked at the atmospheric data from the Tohoku earthquake region? In layperson's shorthand, air temperatures above the monster quake's epicenter area rose and the upper atmosphere went nuts with loose subatomic particles and escaping heat. That is, something caused temperatures to rise in the lower atmosphere; in the ionosphere, much higher up, an unusually high level of electrons and outgoing long-wave radiation were detected.