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Tommy R. Woodward
J. Frank Woodward II
September 2006
(Revised November 23, 2010)


          I have heard stories of the mysterious Marfa Lights almost all my life. I was born and raised in Alpine. TX only 26 miles east of Marfa, so it was a phenomenon we learned to accept. These unexplained ‘ghost lights’ can be seen from US Highway 90, about 10-12 miles east of Marfa, or about 14 miles west of Alpine. Since I grew up in that area I have been asked several times to give my opinion of just what is the cause of the lights. Other than feeling these lights are simply an unexplained natural phenomenon, I had no personal scientific explanation thoughts – - - until now.

Fig.1 The Marfa Lights as seen from Highway 90. Picture courtesy of Mr. James Bunnell.
Color streak at right is a light diffraction pattern.

          To digress: The mysterious nocturnal Marfa Lights have reportedly been observed since Robert Reed Ellison, a local rancher, first saw them in 1883. Of course they were likely seen by Indians who were living there long before the white man arrived. At night, traveling east about 10-12 miles from Marfa, one can look south to southwest over the Mitchell Mesa and possibly see these mysterious lights dancing along the ground. And possibly going up and down, as reported by some observers. They have been reported to be several colors: red, green, blue, yellow….. Each time I saw them (about 1948-51) they were always a bright, light blue, similar to high pressure (sodium) lights set out by many ranchers and business men. But this was before those type of lamps became popular in this part of Wet Texas. Occasionally they would appear to dance, but mostly they were quite stationary.

          Speculations for their existence and sources of light have caused many varied opinions: some quite ridiculous. 1) Auto headlights (in 1883?), 2) Glowing jackrabbits (phosphorous dust clinging to their hides?), 3) Ghosts (Apache?), 4) UFO’s (no comment), 5) atmospheric tunneling (a kind of mirage where light reflects from nearby objects (the first neo-logical idea), 6) Moon glint (on a dark moonless or overcast night?), 8) Swamp gas (what swamp?), 7) St. Elmo’s fire… methane gas… phosphorescent minerals that glow in the dark…. None of these make much sense in the arid desert-like region around Marfa, and finally, 9) an Atomic experiment gone wrong (in 1883?). Too, none of these unimpressive ideas can explain why there have been reports by a few close-up observers of hearing an eerie high-pitched sound in only one ear while observing the Lights.

          Some contend that the lights are the result of the ‘piezoelectric effect’, a naturally occurring phenomenon. Piezoelectricity can be described as the ability of rock crystals to generate a voltage when a mechanical stress is applied. This stress, or rock deformation, has been found to produce sounds, with high voltage, and electronic frequency. It has many uses including ultra fine focusing of optical instruments and assemblies. But most all rocks make good electric insulators.

          This area is made up of multiple igneous lava flows containing exceptional amounts of quartz in a variety of forms, both amorphic and crystalline. These basaltic flow originated in the Paisano, Shafter, and Solitario eruptive volcanic centers and occurred both above and below the Mitchell Mesa Ignimbrite. Due to thermal expansion during the day and contraction during the night, stress is created on the quartz crystals. This stress in turn is converted into voltage which, over time, is eventually discharged into the atmosphere creating a ’ball lightning’ effect. This idea is ‘close’ but still not quite an accurate explanation. However, several unusual events throughout the world have been attributed to this type of natural phenomenon.

          Several individuals and organizations have spent years trying to arrive at a scientific answer. There is still no solid consensus for a solution to the phenomenon. One of the most dedicated privately funded researcher who has spent years in this effort is Mr. James Bunnell ( ). He has been using an automated night camera system with the ability to help distinguish moving vehicle headlights from the marfa lights. In addition to frequent on-site observations and photography, the author installed three automated monitoring stations equipped with a total of nine cameras, to collect nightly video records. Some of his images show “rainbow-like” patterns, which are generated by use of diffraction gratings that contain thousands of tiny triangles to parse the light by frequency.

          So… by now I hope you are anxiously awaiting my own thoughts. Breathe easy. My idea is simply another one of many suggestions for a solution to these mysterious lights, but I think it definitely has merit.

          EARTHQUAKE LIGHTS! I was recently reading an article on earthquake lights. As I read the characteristics I realized it fit almost exactly with the phenomenon of the Marfa Lights and their different colors, etc… As I read further, I discovered that earthquake lights may appear to rise from the ground. They may flicker or shine steadily. They may be brief or shine for several minutes and are a variety of colors. They may even make a crackling sound that can be heard from a distance and may be accompanied by low-frequency radio noise in the 10 to 20 kHz range. These characteristics also fit the Marfa Light phenomenon exactly as described by numerous observers.

          These “earthquake lights”are more common in areas of hard, crystalline rocks and reportedly nearer dip-slip faults rather than strike-slip faults. It is well known some of the Buck Hill lavas lie beneath the 50-130 feet of Mitchell Mesa (Tertiary) welded rhyolite tuff while the Rawls and Petain basalts lie above it. Deep seismic studies indicate there are several known pre-existing large faults (i.e. Walnut Creek fault zone) in the vicinity beneath the rhyolitic tuff as well as several thousand feet of underlying Mesozoic and Paleozoic deposits.

          Too, there is a major fault zone beginning near Persimmon Gap, in the northeast part of the Big Bend National Park in Texas, extending westward, then northwestward through the Marfa Basin. It then arcs around the southern area of the Mitchell Mesa. The Walnut Creek fault zone has very little surface exposure yet it could be putting a considerable amount of sub-surface strain in the immediate area of the mysterious lights. This fault zone also parallels the Rio Grande Rift zone which extends from the Presidio area to El Paso, then turn northward toward Albuquerque, NM.

          A mineral physicist, Friedmann Freund, devised a mechanism for turning rock stress into distant light and electrical activity which helps explain the earthquake phenomena. He took a frustrating fact and made it the cornerstone of a new hypothesis. Freund realized that mineral grains in ordinary rocks are naturally full of flaws; specifically, oxygen atoms in imperfectly ionized states. He stated there are millions of oxygen atoms in every piece of silicate mineral with one electron short, bound together in peroxy bonds. When such a bond is broken for whatever reason, the result is a pair of “holes” of positive charge, or p-holes. He says that anyone who knows the physics of semiconductors know about holes. They carry charge, in their way, just as effectively as electrons do.

          To further quote Freund: he says in the lab, rock surrounded by vacuum or air naturally has its holes move toward the surface, where they generate the unwanted conductivity. In nature, holes tend to stay put unless activated by rock stress. Then they move readily through most igneous and metamorphic rocks, unlike electrons. He conducted experiments that impacted rocks to activate clouds of p-holes. Calculating that the charge clouds might trigger optical and radio waves, he added sensors that in fact detected light and radio noise on sample surfaces.

          It is not well known that similarly strange lights have also been reportedly observed in the Big Bend National Park area. I am confident this is also a plausible solution which can answer and explain questions pertaining to these and the mysterious Marfa Lights, which means they can, and should, still be described as a natural phenomenon.

          For more details about the Earthquake Lights phenomenon, please go to the following website EARTHQUAKE LIGHTS which well describes the scientific explanation in much more detail.

          For more information on the numerous Marfa Lights articles, suggest you go to Google.Com and type in “Marfa Lights”. Over 512,000 responses were found: I only looked at the first ten, or so. Many will be quite enlightening.


          About Geology.Com

          Astronomy Cafe.Net

          Crystal Links.Com

          Marfa Lights Research.Com

          The Skeptics Dictionary.Com



          Personal experience (1948-51)

          Rocks That Crackle Sparkle and Glow: Strange Pre-Earthquake Phenomena. Friedmann T. Freund, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp 61-64, 2003

          The Big Bend of the Rio Grande. A geologic guidebook by Dr. Ross A.Maxwell, University of Texas at Austin, Third Printing 1971.


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