Indian scientists studying archived satellite data have confirmed that earthquakes tend to be preceded by surface-temperature spikes in the immediate area, suggesting that seismic events could one day be predicted from space.

The scientists studied satellite-based thermal data records of several areas hit by earthquakes in recent years: Bhuj, India; Boumerdes, Algeria; Bam, Iran; Izmit, Turkey; Hindukush, Afghanistan; and Kalat, Pakistan.

“Our study was successful in detecting thermal anomalies prior to all these earthquakes,” Arun K. Saraf and Swapnamita Choudhury of the Department of Earth Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Roorkee, reported in the July issue of the Journal of the Indian Geophysical Union.

Surface temperatures above the quake epicenters increased between 4 and 10 degrees Celsius immediately before the events and returned to normal soon afterwards, the scientists reported. The thermal record was compiled using data collected by U.S. environmental satellites.

The scientists said the temperature spikes may be caused by pressure that builds up due to tectonic movement and is released in the quake. Another cause might be subsurface gases escaping through small fissures created by the stresses in the rock, they said.

The report noted that Russian scientists observed a correlation between surface-temperature spikes and earthquakes back in the 1960s. But satellite detection of such changes with sufficient precision for earthquake prediction has become possible only in recent years, the Indian scientists said.

Among the satellites capable of monitoring temperature changes that could portend earthquakes are U.S. polar-orbiting meteorological satellites, NASA’s Terra and Aqua Earth observing satellites, and China’s Feng Yun weather craft, the scientists reported.

Based in Bangalore, Killugudi S. Jayaraman holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He was formerly science editor of the...