Scientists have identified a striking correlation between global seismic activity – earthquakes, to be precise – and changes in the intensity of cosmic radiation measured on Earth’s surface. This correlation, they say, could aid in earthquake prediction.
The enormity of human and economic loss incurred due to earthquakes is overwhelming. The ability to foresee these events, both in terms of time and location, could greatly mitigate the aftermath.
In an intriguing endeavor to substantiate this predictive possibility, the CREDO project, launched in 2016 by the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ PAN) in Cracow, seeks to decipher a potential link between cosmic radiation fluctuations and earthquakes.
Initial cosmic radiation research generated a surprising outcome
Statistical analysis yielded a surprising outcome: the two phenomena are indeed correlated, but in ways no one had anticipated.
The Cosmic Ray Extremely Distributed Observatory (CREDO) is an international, virtual cosmic ray observatory that is accessible to all. It aggregates and processes data from numerous detectors, large and small, including smartphone CMOS sensors, transformed into cosmic ray detectors via a simple app.
A fundamental responsibility of CREDO is to track worldwide alterations in the flux of secondary cosmic radiation that reaches our planet’s surface.
This radiation primarily originates in the Earth’s stratosphere, particularly within the Regener-Pfotzer maximum.
Here, primary cosmic radiation particles collide with atmospheric gas molecules, giving rise to secondary particle cascades.
Dr. Piotr Homola (IFJ PAN and AstroCeNT CAMK PAN), the coordinator of CREDO and first author of the research article in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, explains:
“At first glance, the idea that there is a link between earthquakes and cosmic radiation, in its primary form reaching us mainly from the Sun and deep space, may seem strange. However, its physical foundations are fully rational.”
He emphasizes that the Earth’s magnetic field, a result of eddy currents in our planet’s liquid core, alters the trajectory of primary cosmic radiation’s charged particles.
Therefore, any substantial earthquakes linked to disturbances in the Earth’s dynamo flows would alter the magnetic field, thus impacting the path of primary cosmic radiation. The fallout of these alterations would be apparent in the changes in the counts of secondary cosmic ray particles recorded by ground-based detectors.
How the earthquake/cosmic radiation study was conducted
To ascertain this hypothesis, CREDO physicists scrutinized cosmic ray intensity data from two different stations – the Neutron Monitor Database project (half-century data) and the Pierre Auger Observatory (data since 2005). The chosen observatories offer a balanced representation since they’re located on both sides of the equator and employ distinct detection techniques.
Scientists incorporated changes in solar activity, data acquired from the Solar Influences Data Analysis Centre, into their analysis. Crucial seismic activity data was obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey program.
Various statistical techniques applied to the collected data revealed a distinct correlation between alterations in the intensity of secondary cosmic radiation and the collective magnitude of all earthquakes of 4 or more on the Richter scale.
Significantly, this correlation becomes evident only when the cosmic ray data is advanced by 15 days in relation to the seismic data. This revelation brings optimism for the potential to predict imminent earthquakes.
Very strong and undeniable results
However, the feasibility of predicting specific locations of these seismic events remains unclear. The cosmic ray intensity and earthquakes correlation is not discernible in location-specific analyses but emerges when global seismic activity is considered. This could imply that cosmic ray intensity changes reveal a phenomenon affecting our planet on a broader scale.
Dr. Homola states, “In the scientific world, it is accepted that a discovery can be said to have been made when the statistical confidence level of the corroborating data reaches five sigma, or standard deviations.”
Homola continues, “For the observed correlation, we obtained more than six sigma, which means a chance of less than one in a billion that the correlation is due to chance. We therefore have a very good statistical basis for claiming that we have discovered a truly existing phenomenon. The only question is, is it really the one we were expecting?”
More mysteries found in cosmic radiation and earthquake data
But the mystery doesn’t end here. Along with the observed global nature and the 15-day lead in seismic activity as revealed in cosmic radiation, another unexpected aspect emerges: a large-scale cycles of the correlation.
This periodic fluctuation, peaking every 10-11 years similar to the solar activity cycle, didn’t coincide with the maximum activity of our Sun, confounding the scientists.
Adding to the enigma are other common cycles observed in both cosmic ray and seismic data. For instance, alterations in seismic activity and the intensity of secondary cosmic radiation correspond to the Earth’s stellar day, which is approximately 24 hours minus 236 seconds.
Could this imply that the cosmic-seismic correlations are influenced by some factor beyond our Solar System, something capable of triggering both radiation and seismic effects? But what known physical phenomenon could explicate these apparent correlations?
Could dark matter be involved?
Given the dearth of conventional explanations, scientists are considering the potential involvement of less orthodox phenomena. One such possibility is Earth’s passage through a stream of dark matter, modulated by the Sun and other massive bodies in our Solar System.
Our Earth, with its vast magnetic field, acts as a highly sensitive particle detector, much larger than any human-made detector. Hence, it’s plausible that it might react to phenomena that currently remain undetectable by existing devices.
“Regardless of the source of the observed cycles, the most important thing at this stage of the research is that we have demonstrated a link between the cosmic radiation recorded at the surface of our planet and its seismic activity – and if there is anything we can be sure of, it is that our observation points to entirely new and exciting research opportunities,” concludes Dr. Homola.
In essence, the discovery opens up a new realm of scientific investigation. As scientists grapple with these intriguing puzzles, the quest for understanding our universe continues, and with it, the potential to predict and prepare for catastrophic events like earthquakes.
More about cosmic radiation
Cosmic radiation, also known as cosmic rays, refers to high-energy particles and radiation that come from outer space. This radiation is primarily composed of atomic nuclei stripped of their electron shells, along with a small amount of solitary electrons (beta particles) and gamma photons. Here’s more about cosmic radiation:
Origin of Cosmic Radiation
Most cosmic rays originate from outside our solar system, from sources scattered across the Milky Way galaxy, and a small fraction are even thought to come from outside our galaxy. These sources could include supernova explosions, pulsars, and active galactic nuclei. An even smaller fraction of cosmic rays, often those of lower energy, originate from the Sun.
Cosmic rays include protons (hydrogen nuclei) in the greatest abundance, followed by alpha particles (helium nuclei), and a small percentage of heavier atomic nuclei, electrons, and gamma photons. The mix of atomic nuclei is broadly reflective of the relative abundance of elements in the cosmos, but with an over-representation of heavy, high-energy nuclei known as “HZE ions”.
The energy of cosmic rays is extremely high, often many times higher than that which can be achieved by human-made particle accelerators. The exact energy spectrum of cosmic rays follows a power-law distribution, meaning there are fewer high-energy cosmic rays than there are lower-energy ones, but the maximum energy can reach levels observed in the “Oh-My-God” particle, one of the highest-energy cosmic rays ever detected.
Effects of Cosmic Radiation on Earth
When cosmic rays strike the Earth’s atmosphere, they produce showers of secondary particles, many of which reach the Earth’s surface. These particles include pions, muons, electrons, and photons, and the process of their creation is of interest to researchers studying particle physics.
Role in Cloud Formation
Some theories propose that cosmic rays may influence cloud formation on Earth, and thus affect the Earth’s climate, although this remains a subject of ongoing research and debate.
Cosmic rays pose a significant health risk to astronauts in space, far from the protective shield of Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. They can damage living cells and cause mutations, potentially leading to cancer and other health issues. This is a key concern in planning long-duration space missions, especially missions to Mars.
Cosmic Radiation Detection Methods
Cosmic rays are detected and studied through various methods, including ground-based observatories that detect air showers, balloon-borne detectors that measure the secondary particles in the atmosphere, and space-based detectors that can directly measure the primary cosmic rays. The study of cosmic rays is a branch of astroparticle physics.
Cosmic Radiation History
Cosmic rays were discovered in 1912 by Victor Hess, who conducted balloon flights and observed that radiation increased with altitude, indicating a non-terrestrial origin.
In summary, cosmic rays are an intriguing subject of study for physicists, providing insights into the nature of the universe, the fundamental properties of particles, and the forces and events that can accelerate particles to such extreme energies. They also pose practical concerns for space travel and possibly for climate.
More about earthquakes
Earthquakes are natural phenomena that occur when stress within the Earth’s lithosphere, or crust, is released, causing seismic waves that shake the ground. Here’s an overview:
Origin of Earthquakes
Most earthquakes occur along the boundaries of the tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust. These plates are constantly moving, but they can become locked at their boundaries due to friction. When the stress on the boundary overcomes this friction, it’s released in the form of an earthquake.
The location where an earthquake originates is called the hypocenter, or focus. The point directly above it on the Earth’s surface is the epicenter. Earthquakes typically occur along faults, which are fractures in the Earth’s crust where sections of rock have moved.
Magnitude and Intensity of Earthquakes
The size or energy release of an earthquake is measured by its magnitude, typically using the Richter scale or the moment magnitude scale (Mw). The effects of an earthquake are measured by its intensity, typically using the Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) scale.
Earthquakes generate several types of seismic waves, including P-waves (primary), S-waves (secondary), and surface waves. P-waves are fastest and move in compressional motion, S-waves move in an up-and-down motion, and surface waves travel along the surface, causing the most destruction.
Earthquakes and Aftershocks
Major earthquakes are usually followed by smaller tremors known as aftershocks. These occur as the crust around the displaced fault plane adjusts to the effects of the main shock.
Human activities, such as reservoir-induced seismicity (due to the filling of large reservoirs behind dams), mining, extraction of petroleum, and injection of fluids into the Earth, can also induce seismic events.
Underwater earthquakes can displace large volumes of water, leading to powerful sea waves known as tsunamis. These waves can cause significant destruction when they reach land.
Despite advances in scientific understanding, predicting exactly when and where an earthquake will occur remains challenging. Current research is focused on probability estimates based on seismic risk mapping and understanding precursory phenomena.
In earthquake-prone areas, structures are often designed to withstand seismic activity as part of “earthquake engineering”. This can include designing buildings that can flex and sway without collapsing or using base isolation to reduce the amount of energy that reaches the building during an earthquake.
The study of earthquakes and seismic waves is called seismology. Seismologists use seismographs to record the seismic waves produced by earthquakes and use this information to learn more about the Earth’s interior and to locate and measure earthquakes.
Earthquakes can be one of nature’s most destructive forces, leading to significant loss of life and property, particularly in regions that are not well-prepared for seismic activity. However, they also provide key insights into the structure and behavior of the Earth’s crust and interior.