“Equinox Cracks” Forming in Earth’s Magnetic Field

March 11. 2018: The vernal equinox is less than 10 days away. That means one thing: Cracks are opening in Earth’s magnetic field. Researchers have long known that during weeks around equinoxes fissures form in Earth’s magnetosphere. Solar wind can pour through the gaps to fuel bright displays of Arctic lights. One such episode occurred on March 9th. “The sky exploded with auroras,” reports Kristin Berg, who sends this picture from Tromsø, Norway:

During the display, a stream of solar wind was barely grazing Earth’s magnetic field. At this time of year, that’s all it takes. Even a gentle gust of solar wind can breach our planet’s magnetic defenses.

This is called the the “Russell-McPherron effect,” named after the researchers who first explained it. The cracks are opened by the solar wind itself.  South-pointing magnetic fields inside the solar wind oppose Earth’s north-pointing magnetic field. The two, N vs. S, partially cancel one another, weakening our planet’s magnetic defenses. This cancellation can happen at any time of year, but it happens with greatest effect around the equinoxes. Indeed, a 75-year study shows that March is the most geomagnetically active month of the year, followed closely by September-October–a direct result of “equinox cracks.”

NASA and European spacecraft have been detecting these cracks for years. Small ones are about the size of California, and many are wider than the entire planet. While the cracks are open, magnetic fields on Earth are connected to those on the sun. Theoretically, it would be possible to pick a magnetic field line on terra firma and follow it all the way back to the solar surface. There’s no danger to people on Earth, however, because our atmosphere protects us, intercepting the rain of particles. The afterglow of this shielding action is called the “aurora borealis.”

Stay tuned for more Arctic lights as spring approaches.

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery


Nov. 23, 2017: On Nov. 22nd, the face of the sun was unblemished by sunspots, and NOAA classified solar activity as “very low.”  Nevertheless, the skies above Tromsø, Norway, exploded with a remarkable outburst of pink auroras. “Suddenly, the whole valley turned white (with a hint of pink),” says Frank Meissner, who witnessed and photographed the display. “It was over after about 20 seconds.”

How bright was it? “The brightness of the auroras may be compared to the car lights in the background of my photo,” points out Meissner.

In nearby Kvaløya, aurora tour guide Marianne Bergli witnessed a surge of pink that was, if anything, even more dramatic:

“Ironically, our guests stopped taking pictures,” says Bergli. “They were awestruck and frozen to the spot by the incredible pink and green lights overhead.”

This outburst was powered by a stream of solar wind flowing from a hole in the sun’s atmosphere. Such holes are common during Solar Minimum, and they require no sunspots to form. That’s why auroras continue throughout the 11-year solar cycle.

The pink color of the outburst tells us something interesting about the solar wind on Nov. 22nd: it seems to have been unusually penetrating. Most auroras are green–a verdant glow caused by energetic particles from space hitting oxygen atoms 100 km to 300 km above Earth’s surface. Pink appears when the energetic particles descend lower than usual, striking nitrogen molecules at the 100 km level and below.

In recent winters, big displays of pink and white auroras have coincided with spotless suns often enough to make observers wonder if there is a connection.  If so, more outbursts are in the offing as the sun continues its plunge toward a deep Solar Minimum. Stay tuned for pink!

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

Solar Wind Summons “Steve”

May 21, 2017: During Saturday morning’s solar wind storm, photographer Harlan Thomas stationed himself among the Hoodoos in the badlands of Alberta, Canada. He hoped to catch a display of auroras. This is what he saw:

“Steve appeared!” says Thomas. “I photographed him behind the silhouettes of the Hoodoos alongside Jupiter and a green picket fence aurora.”

“Steve” is the purple arc bisecting the sky. For many years, northern sky watchers have reported this luminous form occasionally dancing among regular auroras. It was widely called a “proton arc” until researchers pointed out that protons probably had nothing to do with it. So members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers group gave it a new name: “Steve.”

No one fully understands the underlying physics of the purple ribbon. However, one of the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites recently flew overhead while Steve was active, providing some clues.

This ESA video shows Swarm satellites orbiting above ground-based aurora imagers: more

“As the satellite flew straight though ‘Steve,’ data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes,” reports Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary. “The temperature 300 km above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 25 km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s compared to a speed of about 10 m/s either side of the ribbon.”

Steve’s visit to Alberta on May 20, 2017, coincided with another exotic auroral form: the green “picket fence.” These vertical rays are thought to trace lines of magnetic force connecting Earth to space. Luminous green columns show where beams of energetic particles are being guided toward Earth’s upper atmosphere by magnetic fields.

Both Steve and the picket fence are filamentary structures associated with beams or ribbons of gas. Coincidence? Hardly. Pictures of the two phenomena show that they often appear together. Consider it another clue.

Realtime “Steve” Photo Gallery

“Steve” Sighted over Calgary

May 18, 2017: For years, northern sky watchers have occasionally spotted a mysterious ribbon of purple light dancing among the aurora borealis. It was widely called a “proton arc” until researchers pointed out that protons probably had nothing to do with it. So members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers group gave it a new name: “Steve.” Recent widespread reporting about Steve has led to even more sightings–and indeed he appeared just this week over Calgary:

“Steve hung out with me for about 15 minutes on May 17th,” reports photographer Harlan Thomas, who witnessed a spectacular display of auroras over Twisted Ponds. The lights appeared as Earth moved through a stream of fast-moving solar wind that briefly interacted with our planet two days ago.

Steve is still a mystery. No one fully understands the underlying physics of the ribbon.  However, one of the European Space Agency’s SWARM satellites recently flew overhead while Steve was active, providing some clues.

“As the satellite flew straight though Steve, data from the electric field instrument showed very clear changes” reports Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary. “The temperature 300 km above Earth’s surface jumped by 3000°C and the data revealed a 25 km-wide ribbon of gas flowing westwards at about 6 km/s compared to a speed of about 10 m/s either side of the ribbon.”

These clues, confirmed and supplemented by similar flybys in the future, may yet crack the mystery of this phenomenon. For now, Steve is unpredictable and may appear in the aurora gallery at any time. Stay tuned!

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

Arctic Space Weather Balloon Launch

March 3, 2017: Spaceweather.com is going to Sweden–and we’re taking a team of student researchers from Earth to Sky Calculus with us. For a week beginning on March 9th we plan to launch a series of space weather balloons equipped with cosmic ray sensors and cameras into the stratosphere above the Arctic Circle. At the same time, Earth to Sky launch teams in Chile and California will be sending up identical payloads, forming an intercontinental balloon network:

We’re doing this for three reasons:

1. To understand Earth’s changing radiation environment: Regular monitoring of the stratosphere over California shows that cosmic rays have intensified more than 10% since 2015.  Because of a recent decline in the solar cycle, more and more cosmic rays are reaching the inner solar system and penetrating the atmosphere of our planet. Earth’s magnetic field should protect us against these rays, but geomagnetism is weakening. Globally, Earth’s magnetic field has declined in strength by 10% since the 19th century with changes accelerating in recent years, according to measurements by Europe’s SWARM satellites. To understand Earth’s global response to these changes, we must launch balloons and sample radiation from widely-spaced locations.  The upcoming network launch will span three continents, more than 14,000 km of linear distance, and 90+ degrees of latitude.

Above: Satellite data show that Earth’s magnetic field is changing: full story.

2. To photograph the Northern Lights: We will be launching balloons from Abisko, Sweden, 250 km inside the Arctic Circle. Abisko is famous for spectacular auroras. One of our payloads will carry a low-light camera capable of photographing these lights from the stratosphere. Even at 120,000 feet, the balloon will be well below the auroras, but we will be a lot closer than any camera on the ground

3. To sample polar stratospheric clouds: During winter months, the stratosphere above the Arctic Circle sometimes fills with icy clouds so colorful, they are likened to the aurora borealis. Polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) are a sign of extremely cold temperatures in the stratosphere and some types of PSCs are responsible for ozone destruction. Our space weather balloons can fly right through these clouds, sampling their temperature, pressure, and ambient levels of radiation.  We can also photograph them from the inside–a possible first!

Above: Polar stratospheric clouds over Kiruna, Sweden, on Feb. 14. Credit: Mia Stålnacke

Stay tuned for daily updates beginning March 9th.

“Daytime Auroras” … a.k.a. Polar Stratospheric Clouds

Feb. 15, 2017: On Feb. 13th, something amazing happened in the stratosphere over the Arctic Circle. Normally, the air 60,000+ feet above Earth’s surface is dry and utterly transparent.  On the eve of Valentine’s Day, however, the Arctic stratosphere filled with a gossamer haze of crystalline ice, and when sunlight hit the freezing crystals, the sky filled with clouds of intense iridescent color.

“Our guests referred to the clouds as ‘daytime auroras,’” reports Chad Blakley, who operates the Lights over Lapland tour guide service in Abisko, Sweden. One of them, Champ Cameron (@champcameron on Instagram), snapped this picture of the display:

“Champ was participating in our Sami And Reindeer Experience outside of Abisko yesterday afternoon,” explains Blakley. “The roads were very icy due to a freak rain storm and warm weather (+9 degrees C) so we nearly canceled the trip. But we heard that there were incredible clouds in the sky so we chose to brave the weather and push on.”

Good thing. They witnessed an exceptional display of polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs). PSCs are a sign of very cold temperatures in the stratosphere. For ice crystals to form in the normally arid stratosphere, temperatures must drop to around -85º C. So while it was strangely warm on the ground below, it was incredibly cold up above.

Longtime observers say PSCs are becoming more common and more intense. “I’ve been living here all my life (33 years),” says Mia Stålnacke of Kiruna, Sweden, who also photographed the colorful outbreak. “I definitely feel that these clouds are appearing more often then they used to. I remember seeing them a few times/year since I was a kid, but these last couple of years we’ve had them much more often–sometimes for almost a week straight. Others seem to feel the same way; I see local groups on Facebook flooded with photos of PSCs and comments on how often they’re appearing now.”

“Our bus driver, a longtime resident of the area, described it as the best PSC display he had ever seen,” relays Blakley. “We were overwhelmed by the natural beauty.” The clouds were so intense, they remained visible even after the sun set:

“We saw these clouds all day long, and they continued into the night,” says photographer Lars Lehnert of Abisko, Sweden. ” I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Once thought to be mere curiosities, some PSCs are now known to be associated with the destruction of ozone. Indeed, an ozone hole formed over the UK in Feb. 2016 following an outbreak of ozone-destroying Type 1 PSCs.

To investigate these clouds further, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus will travel to Abisko Sweden for a week in March 2017.  We plan to launch a series of space weather balloons into the Arctic stratosphere, measuring temperature, air pressure, and ambient radiation.  If PSCs are present, our sensors will pass directly through them, and our cameras can photograph the colorful clouds at point blank range. Stay tuned!

Realtime PSC Photo Gallery

Aurora “Blaster Fire” Recorded in Sweden

Dec. 29, 2016: For centuries, Arctic sky watchers have occasionally reported strange sounds filling the air as Northern Lights danced overhead. Hisses, crackles, and even loud “claps” have been heard and recorded. It may be time to add a new sound to the menagerie: blaster fire.

Photographer Oliver Wright sends this report from inside the Arctic Circle: “On Christmas Night 2016, I was standing beneath an intense display of auroras in Abisko, Sweden, when I heard something that sounded like Star Wars blasters.” As the lights danced overhead, a series of rat-a-tat ‘swooshes’ emanated from a nearby set of power lines.  “Other bystanders heard it, too,” he says. “I rushed closer to the power lines and was able to record a sample using my iPhone.”

To listen, click on the photo–and don’t forget to turn up the volume:

Wright says that the sounds waxed and waned in sync with the auroras overhead; the brighter the lights, the louder the sounds. Distance mattered, too:  “The sounds grew louder as I approached the power lines, and fainter as I moved away.”

Wright is a veteran tour guide working for Lights over Lapland, and he has heard these sounds before–”three times in total. Each time I was standing near power lines.” He recalls a particularly intense outburst of “blaster fire” during the powerful St. Patrick’s Day Storm of March 2015. In each case, guests and/or friends heard the sounds as well.

What’s going on?

“Aurora sounds” have long been a controversial topic.  Some researchers insist that they exist only in the imagination of the listener, but there is growing evidence that they are real.

Twas the night before Christmas. Read Oliver Wright’s aurora blog.

Perhaps the most commonly reported aurora sounds are “hissing” and “crackling,” a bit like static on a radio.  These are thought to come from electric fields causing spark discharges at the pointy ends of objects like pine needles or even strands of dry hair.  Aurora “claps” have been recorded as well.  A researcher in Finland spent 15 years studying this phenomenon and published his results in 2012.  He found that a temperature inversion layer in the atmosphere about 70 meters above the ground could cause a separation of + and – charges in the air. During strong geomagnetic storms, the charge separation breaks down, causing air to move and a “clap” to be heard.

The sounds Wright recorded may be a result of “electrophonic transduction”–that is, the conversion of electromagnetic energy into mechanical motion. At the time of the Christmas aurora outburst, magnetic fields around Abisko were seething with activity.  Physics 101: Unsettled magnetic fields can cause currents to flow in power lines.  Strong low-frequency currents can literally shake objects, launching acoustic vibrations into the air.  Wright may have recorded the unique sound of those power lines swaying in response to the magnetic storm.

“This discussion feels poignant with the passing of Carrie Fisher as she was my childhood love and the sound is very reminiscent of Star Wars,” notes Wright.

Indeed, “Carrie’s Crackles” might be a good name for these heavenly sounds. Around Abisko, people will be listening for more as the next magnetic storm approaches.  Stay tuned!

I’m Dreaming of a … Pink Christmas?

Dec. 26, 2016: Christmas Day 2016 brought a fantastic display of auroras to the Arctic Circle. A great many of them were pink. James Helmericks sends this picture from the Colville River Delta in northern Alaska:

“This was the brightest pink display I have ever seen, at one time even giving the snow a pink tinge,” he says.

The pink color is probably a sign of nitrogen. Most auroras are green–a verdant glow caused by energetic particles from space hitting oxygen atoms 100 km to 300 km above Earth’s surface. Seldom-seen pink appears when the energetic particles descend lower than usual, striking nitrogen molecules at the 100 km level and below.

On the days and nights around Christmas 2016, the pinks became so intense, they appeared white, not only to cameras, “but also to the naked eye,” says Sarah Skinner, who witnessed the strange colors several nights in a row from Abisko, Sweden. “It looked like someone had photoshopped the sky!” she says.

It is worth noting that these remarkable auroras appeared during a lull in solar activity. For three days centered on Christmas, the face of the sun was completely blank. There were no sunspots, no solar flares, and no CMEs. Instead, the display was caused by a high-speed solar wind stream blowing out of a large hole in the sun’s atmosphere. Such atmospheric holes are common during Solar Minimum, so we can expect many similar displays as the sunspot cycle crashes in the years ahead.

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

White Auroras

Dec. 25, 2016: Auroras are usually green. Occasionally, other colors appear: red, purple, blue. One color that never shows itself, however, is white–that is, not until last night. “I saw white auroras over Tromsø, Norway!” reports veteran observer Markus Varik. He recorded the phenomenon in this photo:

“I’ve been working more than 400 nights as a Northern Lights guide, and although sometimes I think I’ve seen it all, never I have witnessed white auroras like that,” says Varik. “It was amazing to see it unravel white like that in front of my eyes. Pure magic!”

Auroras get their colors from specific elements in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Green auroras, for instance, come from atomic oxygen; blue is associated with molecular nitrogen. No element produces white. So where did it come from?

An important clue: Elsewhere in Scandinavia, intense ribbons of pale pink appeared. Here is a specimen recorded by an automated auroracam in Abisko, Sweden:

Sarah Skinner, a tour guide with Lights over Lapland, saw the display: “OMG, it was the pinkest aurora ever!”

The ‘white auroras’ Varik photographed might actually be pink auroras filtered and paled by low-hanging clouds. Indeed, there is a strong hint of pink in Varik’s photo.

Pink auroras are somewhat rare, but hardly unprecedented. They appear when  energetic particles from space descend lower than usual, striking nitrogen molecules at the 100 km level and below. Look for more in the aurora photo gallery:

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

Autumn is Aurora Season

by Dr.Tony Phillips (Spaceweather.com)
Sept. 4, 2016

Summer is ending in the northern hemisphere.  That’s good news for sky watchers because autumn is “aurora season.” Autumn is special in part because lengthening nights and crisp pleasant evenings tempt stargazers outside; they see things they ordinarily wouldn’t. But there’s more to it than that: autumn really does produce a surplus of geomagnetic storms–almost twice the annual average.

see captionIn fact, both spring and autumn are good aurora seasons. Winter and summer are poor. This is a puzzle for researchers because auroras are triggered by solar activity. The Sun doesn’t know what season it is on Earth–so how could one season yield more auroras than another?

Left: Geomagnetic activity from 1875 to 1927, from “Semiannual Variation of Geomagnetic Activity” by C.T. Russell and R.L. McPherron, JGR, 78(1), 92, 1973. See also this analysis by NASA solar physicist David Hathaway.

To understand the answer, we must first understand what causes auroras themselves.

Auroras appear during geomagnetic storms–that is, when Earth’s magnetic field is vibrating in response to a solar wind gust. Such gusts pose no danger to people on the ground because our magnetic field forms a bubble around Earth called the magnetosphere, which protects us. The magnetosphere is filled with electrons and protons. “When a solar wind gust hits the magnetosphere, the impact knocks loose some of those trapped particles,” explains space physicist Tony Lui of Johns Hopkins University. “They rain down on Earth’s atmosphere and cause the air to glow where they hit–like the picture tube of a color TV.”

Below: Still frames from a digital movie show how solar wind gusts rattle Earth’s magnetosphere and trigger auroras. Click to view the 750 kb Quicktime animation created by Digital Radiance, Inc.

see captionSome solar wind gusts (“coronal mass ejections”) are caused by explosions near sunspots, others are caused by holes in the Sun’s atmosphere (“coronal holes”) that spew solar wind streams into interplanetary space. These gusts sweep past Earth year-round, which returns us to the original question: why do auroras appear more often during spring and autumn?

The answer probably involves the Sun’s magnetic field near Earth. The Sun is a huge magnet, and all the planets in the solar system orbit within the Sun’s cavernous magnetosphere. Earth’s magnetosphere, which spans about 50,000 km from side to side, is tiny compared to the Sun’s.

The outer boundary of Earth’s magnetosphere is called the magnetopause–that’s where Earth’s magnetic field bumps into the Sun’s and fends off the solar wind. Earth’s magnetic field points north at the magnetopause. If the Sun’s magnetic field tilts south near the magnetopause, it can partially cancel Earth’s magnetic field at the point of contact.

see caption“At such times the two fields (Earth’s and the Sun’s) link up,” says Christopher Russell, a Professor of Geophysics and Space Physics at UCLA. “You can then follow a magnetic field line from Earth directly into the solar wind.” Researchers call the north-south component of the Sun’s nearby magnetic field “Bz” (pronounced “Bee-sub-Zee”). Negative (south-pointing) Bz‘s open a door through which energy from the solar wind can reach Earth’s inner magnetosphere. Positive (north-pointing) Bz‘s close the door.

Above: Coronal holes spewing solar windappear as dark areas in ultraviolet and x-ray images of the Sun.

In the early 1970’s Russell and colleague R. L. McPherron recognized a connection between Bz and Earth’s changing seasons. “It’s a matter of geometry,” explains Russell. Bz is the component of the Sun’s magnetic field near Earth which is parallel to Earth’s magnetic axis. As viewed from the Sun, Earth’s tilted axis seem to wobble slowly back and forth with a one-year period. The wobbling motion is what makes Bz wax and wane in synch with the seasons.

In fact, Bz is always fluttering back and forth between north and south as tangled knots of solar magnetic field drift by Earth. What Russell and McPherron realized is that the average size of the flutter is greatest in spring and fall. When Bz turns south during one of those two seasons, it really turns south and “opens the door wide” for the solar wind.

see captionLeft: A solar wind gust triggered these bright auroras in Finland on Sept. 7, 2002. Photo credit: Martti Tenhunen. [more]

Mystery solved? Not yet. In a Geophysical Research Letter (28, 2353-2356, June15, 2001), Lyatsky et al argued that Bz and other known effects account for less than one-third of the seasonal ups-and-downs of geomagnetic storms. “This is an area of active research,” remarks Lui. “We still don’t have all the answers because it’s a complicated problem.”

But not too complicated to enjoy. Dark nights, bright stars, an occasional meteor–and the promise of Northern Lights. Perhaps scientists haven’t figured out why auroras prefer autumn, but it’s easy to understand why sky watchers do….