New kind of aurora is not an aurora at all

WASHINGTON — Thin ribbons of purple and white light that sometimes appear in the night sky were dubbed a new type of aurora when brought to scientists’ attention in 2016. But new research suggests these mysterious streams of light are not an aurora at all but an entirely new celestial phenomenon.

Alberta Aurora Chasers capture STEVE, the new-to-science upper atmospheric phenomenon, on the evening of April 10, 2018 in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada. Fellow Aurora Chaser Robert Downie kneels in the foreground while photographer Ryan Sault captures the narrow ribbon of white-purple hues overhead. The vibrant green aurora is seen in the distant north, located to the right in the photo. In this issue, Gallardo-Lacourt et al. use a ground based all-sky imager and in situ satellite data to study the origin of STEVE. Their results demonstrate that STEVE is different than aurora since the observation is characterized by the absence of particle precipitation. CREDIT Ryan Sault

Amateur photographers had captured the new phenomenon, called STEVE, on film for decades. But the scientific community only got wind of STEVE in 2016. When scientists first looked at images of STEVE, they realized the lights were slightly different than light from typical auroras but were not sure what underlying mechanism was causing them.

In a new study, researchers analyzed a STEVE event in March 2008 to see whether it was produced in a similar manner as the aurora, which happens when showers of charged rain down into Earth’s upper atmosphere. The study’s results suggest STEVE is produced by a different atmospheric process than the aurora, making it an entirely new type of optical phenomenon.

“Our main conclusion is that STEVE is not an aurora,” said Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, a space physicist at the University of Calgary in Canada and lead author of the new study in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “So right now, we know very little about it. And that’s the cool thing, because this has been known by photographers for decades. But for the scientists, it’s completely unknown.”

The study authors have dubbed STEVE a kind of “skyglow,” or glowing light in the night sky, that is distinct from the aurora.

Studying STEVE can help scientists better understand the upper atmosphere and the processes generating light in the sky, according to the authors.

“This is really interesting because we haven’t figured it out and when you get a new problem, it’s always exciting,” said Joe Borovsky, a space physicist at the Space Science Institute in Los Alamos, New Mexico who was not connected to the new study. “It’s like you think you know everything and it turns out you don’t.”

A different kind of light show

Auroras are produced when electrons and protons from Earth’s magnetosphere, the region around Earth dominated by its magnetic field, rain down into the ionosphere, a region of charged particles in the upper atmosphere. When these electrons and protons become excited, they emit light of varying colors, most often green, red and blue.

A group of amateur auroral photographers brought STEVE to scientists’ attention in 2016. A Facebook ground called the Alberta Aurora Chasers had occasionally noticed bright, thin streams of white and purple light running east to west in the Canadian night sky when they photographed the aurora.

Auroras are visible every night if viewing conditions are right, but the thin light ribbons of STEVE were only visible a few times per year. The light from STEVE was also showing up closer to the equator than the aurora, which can only be seen at high latitudes.

The photographers first thought the light ribbons were created by excited protons, but protons can only be photographed with special equipment. The light protons produce falls out of the range of wavelengths picked up by normal cameras.

The aurora chasers dubbed the light ribbon occurrences “Steve,” a reference to the 2006 film Over the Hedge. When researchers presented data about the unusual lights at a 2016 scientific conference, a fellow space physicist proposed converting the name into the backronym STEVE, which stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, and the researchers adopted it.

Where does STEVE come from?

Scientists then started using data from satellites and images from ground-based observatories to try to understand what was causing the unusual light streaks. The first scientific study published on STEVE found a stream of fast-moving ions and super-hot electrons passing through the ionosphere right where STEVE was observed. The researchers suspected these particles were connected to STEVE somehow but were unsure whether they were responsible for producing it.

After that first study, of which Gallardo-Lacourt was a co-author, the researchers wanted to find out if STEVE’s light is produced by particles raining down into the ionosphere, as typically happens with the aurora, or by some other process. In the new study, Gallardo-Lacourt and her colleagues analyzed a STEVE event that happened over eastern Canada on March 28, 2008, using images from ground-based cameras that record auroras over North America.

They coupled the images with data from NOAA’s Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite 17 (POES-17), which happened to pass directly over the ground-based cameras during the STEVE event. The satellite is equipped with an instrument that can measure charged particles precipitating into the ionosphere.

The study’s results suggest STEVE is an entirely new phenomenon distinct from typical auroras. The POES-17 satellite detected no charged particles raining down to the ionosphere during the STEVE event, which means it is likely produced by an entirely different mechanism, according to the authors.

The researchers said STEVE is a new kind of optical phenomenon they call “skyglow.” Their next step is to see whether the streams of fast ions and hot electrons in the ionosphere are creating STEVE’s light, or if the light is produced higher up in the atmosphere.

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This paper is open access for 30 days. You can download a PDF copy of the article by clicking on this link:

https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1029/2018GL078509

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48 thoughts on “New kind of aurora is not an aurora at all

  1. Note to editors – Probably missing word particles in this paragraph near the start

    In a new study, researchers analyzed a STEVE event in March 2008 to see whether it was produced in a similar manner as the aurora, which happens when showers of charged PARTICLES rain down into Earth’s upper atmosphere. The study’s results suggest STEVE is produced by a different atmospheric process than the aurora, making it an entirely new type of optical phenomenon.

    • “when showers of charged rain down into Earth’s upper atmosphere…:

      I saw that, too. Ions? Sheep? Cats? That’s it! It’s charged cats! That’s what really makes that noise!

      Oh, this is so much fun. I know it’s really charged electrons or ions or hot air from politicians, but still….

    • Note to editors , we get treated to this stupid name STEVE in just about every single sentence of this piece. What the hell does that mean? Presumably some pathetically contrived acronym.

      • “When researchers presented data about the unusual lights at a 2016 scientific conference, a fellow space physicist proposed converting the name into the backronym STEVE, which stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, and the researchers adopted it.”

        I believe backronym in that sentence should actually be acronym.
        The acronym STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
        Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement is the backronym explaining the acronym STEVE.

        • They started with Steve from Over The Hedge. They then went backward to make a phrase that would make it an acronym. Made sense to me.

        • Okay Jeff, I didn’t notice that definition of the word. Now somebody tell me why “a fellow physicist” (anonymous) didn’t get his name in the books.
          Was it because he is a citizen scientist who has not the required sheepskin to be credited?

        • Backronym- where the acronym word is there first, and the phrase created from the letters – ie, backwards acronym.

  2. Second note to editors: please change all occurrences of ‘different than’ to ‘different from’. There are some of each and it should be consistent.

    It is probably a ‘Facebook group’ not a ‘ground’.

    • [/sarcoff] My first thought: high atmospheric advanced research project, Eastland’s “atmospheric heaters,” of which there are now half a dozen scattered around the world.

      • Interesting thought, Richie. Could those bands of emission (STEVE) be tracing out extremely low frequency wave forms?

  3. Hmmm, were professional onservers and workers really so clueless? Perhaps too much time in the lab.
    This pretty much has to a phenomenon as old as physics.
    Observation vs. expectation is a challenge to more than climate science. But at least the aurora workers are open to newly found data.
    How amazing to have something so huge be so unknown!

    • Clearly it was not ‘unknown” as it had been photographed for many years.
      That it was not fully understood or explained, would be more accurate.

      We ‘knew’ of the Sun for millennia before we understood it to be simply another star in the universe.

  4. Clearly STEVE is either caused by or amplified by CO2 emissions. Anyone who doesn’t believe that are nothing more than science deniers, and should probably receive some considerable jail time. 😉

    • And whatever it’s doing, it’s much, much worse than we thought. Tipping point, almost beyond the point of no return, extreme, unprecedented, blah blah woof woof!

    • I was thinking the same, …….. jet liner “contrails”, …….because of, to wit:

      ……. occasionally noticed bright, thin streams of white and purple light running east to west in the Canadian night sky ……

      ….. but the thin light ribbons of STEVE were only visible a few times per year. The light from STEVE was also showing up closer to the equator than the aurora, which can only be seen at high latitudes.

      A “seasonal” event ……. when Sunlight reflects off the underside of a contrail???????

      Like “red skies at night, sailors delight”.

  5. Steve, huh? How come it’s always Steve that gets the finger pointed at him?

    Are you sure it isn’t HAL-3000? Or Dave?

  6. Random thought:
    A variation on lightning: (We do need to know how long these things last for though. Seconds or minutes?
    One huuuuuge mother f*****r of a cosmic ray (a relativistic mini-chunk of tungsten or something heavy) comes in – leaving a trail of isoniasations through the atmosphere and that ‘gently’ discharges something big & electrical on the ground – a major sub-station or an especially tall pylon along an HV power-line maybe?
    Like that trick Greenies & Smart-Alecs do with fluorescent light tubes below HV lines to show how dangerous they are

    It *does* look like an incoming meteor in that top photo after all.
    Better not have any hit the UK or there’ll be a tax on the things soon.

  7. OH NO! STEVE must be a manifestation of GOREBULL warming! There’s no doubt — because it’s never, ever been seen before. It’s a sign, a sign of the the new disastrous Era, the Trumpocene! The EverythingIsGoingToHeckocene!

  8. “It’s like you think you know everything and it turns out you don’t.”

    Yeah. And how much more complicated than this is the entire earth climate system, but the science there is ‘settled’.

  9. They are birkeland currents. No surprise that the narrow-of-focus “scientists” think it is a new phenomenon.

    • Glow mode plasma electrical discharge.

      “Field‐aligned currents play a central role in the study of the magnetized plasmas of the solar terrestrial environment. In particular, if perturbations of flow develop on one part of a flux tube, field‐aligned currents must flow in order to communicate the changes to the entire flux tube. Field‐aligned currents cause the field to twist or shear, a feature that can be described in terms of the displacement of field lines from an unperturbed orientation.”
      https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1029/90JA01806

      “Birkeland Currents: A Force-Free Field-Aligned Model.
      After Kristian Birkeland [1] (1867-1917) suggested in 1908
      that Earth’s auroras were powered by corpuscular rays ema-
      nating from the Sun that become deflected into Earth’s po-
      lar regions by the geomagnetic field, the existence of such
      magnetic field-aligned currents was strongly disputed based
      partially on the idea that currents could not cross the pre-
      sumed “vacuum” of space.”
      http://www.ptep-online.com/2015/PP-41-13.PDF

      Sydney Chapman hotly contested Birkeland and Alfven, basing his interpretation on his kinetic theory of gases.

      Since Chapman, thou shalt use the term magnetic, electric shall remain implied.

      • Richard G., whether or not these are Birkeland Currents, that PDF paper your linked to is a very interesting read. Learn something new everyday.

        Certainly a better name than that STEVE thing, anyway.

  10. … alien death ray misfire. Watch out for the next one — it’ll be at full strength, once they get that blasted part they ordered.

    Seriously, though, where’s the short, clear explanation of what experts think it might be?

  11. First came to researchers’ attention in 2016. That doesn’t mean these are a new phenomenon. I would wager a lot these are not new. And until the source of these is identified and proved, it is impossible to prove they are something new.

  12. Well perhaps this solves the mystery we experienced last Sept camping on the shores of Shuswap Lake at Seymour Arm BC. At about 11:00pm after some beverages and “herbal” supplements we noticed a huge shaft of light spanning the sky approx east west. Very clear and slowly varying in intensity, however the color was more like a white/green than the mentioned white/purple, it lasted approx 60 to 90 min in exactly the same location. The campgrounds were deserted and we never found anyone else that witnessed it, this likely explains it.

  13. Reminds me of the “discovery” of vertical lightning. For decades pilots had known about it but the science community scoffed at it. One of my mentors, Otha H. Vaughn at the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center (MSFC) had been a fighter pilot in Korea in the same squadron as Buzz Aldrin. The F-86 and Bomber pilots had seen the vertical lighting at that time when flying missions.

    When Otha (nickname Skeet) started working at NASA in the 1960’s he was unable to find any scientists who knew about it. Finally, after many years he was able to fund a small study with cameras to identify them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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