Scientists make first direct observation of electrons creating Northern Lights

I found this very interesting, so I’m passing it along to WUWT readers.

The shower of electrons bouncing across Earth’s magnetosphere – commonly known as the Northern Lights – has been directly observed for the first time by an international team of scientists. While the cause of these colorful auroras has long been hypothesized, researchers had never directly observed the underlying mechanism until now.

The scientists published their results today in Nature.

The spectacle of these subatomic showers is legendary. Green, red, and purple waltz across the night sky, blending into one another for a fantastic show widely considered one of the great wonders of the world. Among a variety of auroras, pulsating auroral patches appearing at dawn are common but the physical mechanisms driving this auroral pulsation had so far not been verified through observation.

With the advent of a new satellite with advanced measuring tools, researchers have now identified that this wonder is caused by the hard-to-detect interaction between electrons and plasma waves. This interaction takes place in the Earth’s magnetosphere, the region surrounding the Earth in which the behavior of the electric particles is usually governed by the planet’s magnetic field.

“Auroral substorms … are caused by global reconfiguration in the magnetosphere, which releases stored solar wind energy,” writes Satoshi Kasahara, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at the Graduate School of Science of the University of Tokyo in Japan, the lead author of the paper. “They are characterized by auroral brightening from dusk to midnight, followed by violent motions of distinct auroral arcs that eventually break up, and emerge as diffuse, pulsating auroral patches at dawn.”

The global reconfiguration often drives a specific type of plasma waves called chorus waves, to rain electrons into the upper atmosphere. This stabilizes the system, and gives off a colorful light as the electrons fall. However, scientists have questioned if the chorus waves were powerful enough to excite electrons to the extent of creating auroras.

Video: Pulsating aurora, the origin of the blinking patches of light, is now directly observed by the ERG spacecraft. Electrons in the magnetosphere, which usually bounce along the geomagnetic field, are thought to be scattered by chorus waves, resulting in precipitation into the atmosphere. The intermittent bursts of chorus waves cause the pulsations of precipitation and associated auroral illumination. The ERG spacecraft showed that this electron scattering by chorus waves indeed takes place in the magnetosphere. CREDIT 2018 ERG science team.

“We, for the first time, directly observed scattering of electrons by chorus waves generating particle precipitation into the Earth’s atmosphere,” Kasahara says. “The precipitating electron flux was sufficiently intense to generate pulsating aurora.”

Scientists couldn’t see this direct evidence of electron scattering before because typical electron sensors cannot distinguish the precipitating electrons from others. Kasahara and his team designed a specialized electron sensor that observed the precise interactions of auroral electrons driven by chorus waves. The sensor was aboard the Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace (ERG) satellite, also known as the Arase spacecraft, launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The scientists plan to pursue this line of research further. The collaborative team includes not only researchers from the University of Tokyo, but also Nagoya University, Osaka University, the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Kanazawa University, and Tohoku University in Japan; the Academic Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan; and the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles in the U.S.

“By analyzing data collected by the ERG spacecraft more comprehensively, we will reveal the variability and further details of plasma physics and resulting atmospheric phenomena, such as auroras,” Kasahara says.



Journal article:

S. Kasahara, Y. Miyoshi, S. Yokota, T. Mitani, Y. Kasahara, S. Matsuda, A. Kumamoto, A. Matsuoka, Y. Kazama, H. U. Frey, V. Angelopoulos, S. Kurita, K. Keika, K. Seki, and I. Shinohara, Pulsating aurora from electron scattering by chorus waves, Nature

URL (abstract):

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
February 15, 2018 1:13 pm

However, scientists have questioned if the chorus waves were powerful enough to excite electrons to the extent of creating auroras.
So, all that happened was to put down the [few] scientists who questioned the mechanism.

February 15, 2018 1:19 pm

Real science. We had inferred what caused auroras, but now have direct observatiins proving the theory correct. Have seen spectacular auroras twice. Once before midnight west of Madison driving to the farm in dead of winter. We pulled over and got out so the kids could appreciate the whole sky view. Once at the cabin in Ontario over Christmas holidays. Both nights very cold and crystal clear.

February 15, 2018 1:32 pm

This story is yet another typical overhyped misrepresentation of the facts. It is about the diffuse aurorae that are at the limit of visibility [and sometimes pulsates in patches], not about the brilliant displays that are so impressive.

Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 15, 2018 2:41 pm

Excuse the ignorance (and posibly stupid question), but is it likely that the more spectacular displays are caused by a similar or related mechanism, or are the two entirely unrelated?

Reply to  Stephen Wintersgill
February 15, 2018 3:45 pm

They are totally unrelated, as the bright aurorae are caused by electrons accelerated on field lines reaching out in the outer magnetosphere.
“The immediate cause of the ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents leading to auroral emissions was discovered in 1960, when a pioneering rocket flight from Fort Churchill in Canada revealed a flux of electrons entering the atmosphere from above. Since then an extensive collection of measurements has been acquired painstakingly and with steadily improving resolution since the 1960s by many research teams using rockets and satellites to traverse the auroral zone. The main findings have been that auroral arcs and other bright forms are due to electrons that have been accelerated during the final few 10,000 km or so of their plunge into the atmosphere. These electrons often, but not always, exhibit a peak in their energy distribution, and are preferentially aligned along the local direction of the magnetic field. Electrons mainly responsible for diffuse and pulsating auroras have, in contrast, a smoothly falling energy distribution, and an angular (pitch-angle) distribution favouring directions perpendicular to the local magnetic field. Pulsations were discovered to originate at or close to the equatorial crossing point of auroral zone magnetic field lines”
Wikipedia [but good enough].

February 15, 2018 4:19 pm

So Birkeland is vindicated… His electrical connection is real…. Good to know.

Reply to  J.H.
February 15, 2018 4:42 pm

except he thought the particles were positive, not negative as electrons

Alan Tomalty
Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 15, 2018 6:49 pm

How are the climate modelers going to be able to incorporate this into their model of the atmosphere? They cant do normal winds correctly never mind solar winds? Aurora winds of electrons will really test them.

Reply to  Alan Tomalty
February 15, 2018 7:51 pm

The air up there is so thin that there is little or no effect on the much thicker atmosphere lower down.

Michael S. Kelly
Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 16, 2018 11:19 pm

Well, so they are up and not depressed, so what? I mean, com on, who cares about a particle’s emotional state? Really? No one except a Republican…

Reply to  J.H.
February 15, 2018 8:31 pm

Someone go slap Sydney Chapman.

Richard of NZ
February 15, 2018 5:06 pm

So they have now explained the Aurora Borealis but there are also the A. Australis to explain. Because the Australis occur in the southern hemisphere there must be a shortage of electrons to produce them i.e. a different mechanism. Could this presumably positively charged mechanism also be part of the reason for the difference in ozone depletion between the north and south polar regions?

Reply to  Richard of NZ
February 15, 2018 5:15 pm

No, they had it over the barely visible diffuse aurorae and there is no difference between then northern and southern hemispheres. In fact, the particles bounce back and forth between the hemispheres several times a second.

Pop Piasa
Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 15, 2018 9:52 pm

Leif, are diffuse aurorea and air glow related? (pardon my ignorance)

Reply to  Pop Piasa
February 15, 2018 10:00 pm

No, not at all. Aurorae are created by charged particles moving along magnetic field lines and are seen at high latitudes. Airglow is due to recombination of ions and electrons generated by ultraviolet radiation from the sun and are therefore best seen at low latitudes.

Pop Piasa
Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 15, 2018 10:09 pm

Thanks, that just filled in some gaps for me.

February 15, 2018 7:58 pm

Are the aurorae on other planets of the same mechanism?

Reply to  Max Photon
February 15, 2018 8:02 pm

Yes and no.
There are several different mechanisms at work.

February 15, 2018 8:27 pm

Leif, have you seen Don Scott’s bessel function solutions of the equations for force-free field aligned currents?
Birkeland Currents: A Force-Free Field-Aligned Model
I know (or at least I think I know) that you do not think much of the EU crowd and their ideas, but putting that aside, and in the interest of always keeping an open mind, have you seen that his solutions yield multiple concentric counter-rotating currents that look very similar to the multiple concentric counter-rotating atmospheric currents Saturn and Jupiter, and to the motion of Earth’s aurorae, when looking down the axes of rotation?
He has a two hour presentation on this, but here is a very short, and necessarily far more incomplete description of his findings, and a visual correlation with observations from Saturn and Jupiter. (Jump to 1:20 … then it’s about 5 minutes.)

Reply to  Max Photon
February 15, 2018 8:32 pm

his solutions yield multiple concentric counter-rotating currents
We have observed the currents [on the Earth] by magnetometers, electric fields, spectrometers, and imaging for over 50 years from the ground, from rockets, and from spacecraft and they don’t in general look at all like that.

Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 15, 2018 8:35 pm

And what of Jupiter?

Reply to  Max Photon
February 15, 2018 8:39 pm

What of it?
The roation was of clouds and not aurorae.
On Earth we shoot rockets through Birkeland currents and they don’t find ‘counter-rotating’ currents.

Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 15, 2018 8:47 pm

Birkeland currents are sheets of current:×608.png

February 16, 2018 3:08 am

What was the cost of this satellite and who paid for it?

February 16, 2018 4:31 am

Leif, if the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening (prior to reversing the magnetic poles), how will this affect auroral displays? And will they move further south (or north) over time?
I didn’t get to see any of this, thanks to overcast weather, so thanks in advance for responding.

Reply to  Sara
February 16, 2018 6:29 am

A reduction in field strength causes the magnetosphere to shrink and the polar cap to expand thus moving the auroral zone equatorwards.

Ola Royrvik
February 16, 2018 8:24 am

Came across this while looking for something else and was astonished that
“new” science was something I knew when I wrote my thesis on pulsating
aurora in the early 70s. But can anybody explain that “black” aurora shows
both pulsations and curls. I can’t remember what way the curls rotate. Have
not worked on this in 40 years.

Reply to  Ola Royrvik
February 16, 2018 8:27 am

Yeah, you are correct. This is not ‘new’

GD Holcombe
February 16, 2018 9:21 am

Fake news. Everyone knows–as Robert Service told us–that the Northern Lights are caused by a “a mine of the precious stuff that men call radium.” In the Yukon Territory. “It’s a million dollars a pound, they say, and there’s tons and tons in sight. You can see it gleam in a golden stream in the solitudes of the night.”

February 17, 2018 6:06 pm

I have a small collection of aurora photos, that I use as desktop backgrounds.
But I just ran across this photo over at in their aurora gallery.
Entwined ? ?

Reply to  Carla
February 18, 2018 8:20 am

“B” currentcomment image

Reply to  vukcevic
February 18, 2018 8:38 am

Birkeland currents are broad current sheets

Reply to  vukcevic
February 18, 2018 4:38 pm

lsvalgaard February 18, 2018 at 8:38 am
Gee whizz, Dr. S., the aurora image itself appears to entwine or twist. First time though, that I had ever seen images of a twist in aurora photos. Usually, curtains, bursts or dissipating.
Interesting image Vuks, thanks.

Reply to  Carla
February 18, 2018 5:30 pm

Regardless of what you have been deceived to believe, Vuk’s image is not how the aurora works. For one, the magnetic field is vertical [not circular as in the image], but the whole thing is pseudo-science. It is amaizing that in this day and age, people can be deceived into believing such nonsense.,

Reply to  vukcevic
February 19, 2018 2:29 am

“For one, the magnetic field is vertical [not circular as in the image]”
Doc, it’s elementary physics, known for 200 years as per the Ampère’s Law.
Flowing electric current produces radial (‘circular’) magnetic field, resultant forces pull conductors (in this case plasma sheets) inwards
the result is obvious.

Reply to  vukcevic
February 19, 2018 7:17 am

lsvalgaard February 18, 2018 at 5:30 pm
… Vuk’s image is not how the aurora works. For one, the magnetic field is vertical….
Yes, I know this Dr. S., not how the aurora works around the polar regions. Something else was occurring that day simultaneously with the aurora, to produce that photo I posted, producing what Vuk’s is showing.

Reply to  Carla
February 19, 2018 7:34 am

Not at all. Vuk’s picture does not show what happened to the aurora [for one the current goes the wrong way]. The auroral sheets move because the plasma in the far magnetosphere moves around:

Reply to  vukcevic
February 19, 2018 8:59 am

Doc, think dual/multiple beams ‘surface to ionosphere’.

Reply to  vukcevic
February 19, 2018 9:51 am

Why would I do that? It has nothing to do with the aurora.

James Payette
February 18, 2018 3:00 pm

I think the problem is in the linguistics. Using words used to describe the behavior of gases and liquids to describe the actions of plasma. Rain, wind, precipitate (implying from a cloud like in the atmosphere) – currents implying circuits is ok there is an electrical current between the Earth and the Sun (one manifestaton being the aurora). then there is the use of field lines – magnetic fields don’t have lines except in wrong physics (belief in monopoles or magnetic reconnection) or a useful simplification for mathematical calculations – similar to the belief that fluid dynamics (used for liquids and gases) can describe the phenomena of plasma .

February 19, 2018 5:56 am

Except that the auroral Birkeland currents don’t look like that. The currents are sheet currents in opposite directions.

Reply to  lsvalgaard
February 19, 2018 6:35 am

“Except that the auroral Birkeland currents don’t look like that”
Agree, it is not a typical aurora, if the date is available, solar end geomagnetic conditions research, as in the high frequency active auroral research program, may give more insight/sarc.

%d bloggers like this: