A massive earthquake registering at a magnitude of 8.1 struck off the southern coast of Mexico on Friday, leaving more than 32 people dead by current estimates, and felt by more than 50 million residents within the nation.  Unfortunately, the heartache and tragedy the accompanies these sorts of natural disasters are something we’ve grown to expect in the aftermath of such an event, but amidst the turmoil, something most people didn’t expect also appeared: flashes of mysterious green and blue lights shooting across the sky.

Here on the internet, where crazy shoulders its way into conversation right alongside rational, reports of balls and streaks of neon seeming light in the skies above a natural disaster always comes with a chorus of conspiracy theorists alleging secret government weapons or the involvement of some advanced race of extraterrestrials.  Unfortunately for the excitable masses, earthquake lights are a naturally occurring phenomena, and it seems unlikely that the U.S. government’s (now defunct) HAARP project could have been involved, nor were chemtrails, a Soviet era earthquake machine, or the Mothman.  Instead, you can chalk these strange occurrences up to the electrical properties of certain rocks in very specific settings.

For the most part, earthquake lights can be classified into one of two categories: preseismic lights, which are seen closer to an earthquake’s epicenter in the hours, or even weeks leading up to an event, and coseismic lights, which appear during an earthquake anywhere from the epicenter to significant distances away, as seismic energy transfers through the area in waves.  For years, both of these types of lights were considered to be fake, or caused by errors in perception, rather than real phenomena, but in recent decades, more and more evidence has surfaced to support people’s claims of seeing earthquake lights, to the point that they are now a considered a widely accepted, though narrowly understood, naturally occurring event.

“When studied individually, some EQL reports may appear questionable.” A peer-reviewed paper on earthquake lights co-authored by Dr. Friedemann Freund admits.  “However, a large number of eyewitness reports from certain areas (e.g., Saguenay, Pisco, L’Aquila), coupled with similarities with respect to shapes and colors (e.g., globes, flame‐like luminosities) for incidences in very different regions of the world should be taken as evidence that EQL occurrences are real and a widespread phenomenon.”

Freund is the right guy to ask if things like earthquake lights could possibly be tied to government projects, aliens, or run of the mill seismic anomalies.  He’s a senior researcher as NASA’s Ames Research Center (that covers government involvement), a contributor to the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (or SETI – which covers aliens), and he’s earned a Ph.D. in Mineralogy/ Crystalography from Marburg University in Germany.  If it involves NASA, aliens, or rocks, Freund is the duty expert.

“In the past, people often interpreted [earthquake lights] in religious terms, and in modern times they thought of UFOs, although there is a completely rational physical explanation that we are working on,” Freud told National Geographic in 2014.

“When nature stresses certain rocks, electric charges are activated, as if you switched on a battery in the Earth’s crust,” Freund explained.  Basalts and gabbros are the two kinds of rocks most likely to produce a visible charge, as they have tiny defects within their crystals.  When struck by seismic waves, these rocks produce and release an electrical charge.

“The charges can combine and form a kind of plasma-like state, which can travel at very high velocities and burst out at the surface to make electric discharges in the air.”