An aurora[a] (PL: auroras or aurorae),[b]also commonly known as the polar lights,[c] is a natural light display in Earth's sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic). Auroras display dynamic patterns of brilliant lights that appear as curtains, rays, spirals, or dynamic flickers covering the entire sky.
Auroras are the result of disturbances in the magnetosphere caused by the solar wind. Major disturbances result from enhancements in the speed of the solar wind from coronal holes and coronal mass ejections. These disturbances alter the trajectories of charged particles in the magnetospheric plasma. These particles, mainly electrons and protons, precipitate into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere). The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying colour and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles.
The word "aurora" is derived from the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, who travelled from east to west announcing the coming of the sun. Ancient Greek poets used the corresponding name Eos metaphorically to refer to dawn, often mentioning its play of colors across the otherwise dark sky (e.g., "rosy-fingered dawn").
Most auroras occur in a band known as the "auroral zone", which is typically 3 to 6 wide in latitude and between 10 and 20 from the geomagnetic poles at all local times (or longitudes), most clearly seen at night against a dark sky. A region that currently displays an aurora is called the "auroral oval", a band displaced by the solar wind towards the night side of Earth. Early evidence for a geomagnetic connection comes from the statistics of auroral observations. Elias Loomis (1860), and later Hermann Fritz (1881) and Sophus Tromholt (1881) in more detail, established that the aurora appeared mainly in the auroral zone.
In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis or the northern lights. The former term was coined by Galileo in 1619, from the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind. The southern counterpart, the aurora australis or the southern lights, has features almost identical to the aurora borealis and changes simultaneously with changes in the northern auroral zone. The aurora australis is visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. The aurora borealis is visible from areas around the Arctic such as Alaska, the Canadian Territories, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia. On rare occasions the aurora borealis can be seen as far south as the Mediterranean and the southern states of the US.
Auroras seen within the auroral oval may be directly overhead, but from farther away, they illuminate the poleward horizon as a greenish glow, or sometimes a faint red, as if the Sun were rising from an unusual direction. Auroras also occur poleward of the auroral zone as either diffuse patches or arcs, which can be subvisual.
Auroras are occasionally seen in latitudes below the auroral zone, when a geomagnetic storm temporarily enlarges the auroral oval. Large geomagnetic storms are most common during the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle or during the three years after the peak. An electron spirals (gyrates) about a field line at an angle that is determined by its velocity vectors, parallel and perpendicular, respectively, to the local geomagnetic field vector B. This angle is known as the "pitch angle" of the particle. The distance, or radius, of the electron from the field line at any time is known as its Larmor radius. The pitch angle increases as the electron travels to a region of greater field strength nearer to the atmosphere. Thus, it is possible for some particles to return, or mirror, if the angle becomes 90 before entering the atmosphere to collide with the denser molecules there. Other particles that do not mirror enter the atmosphere and contribute to the auroral display over a range of altitudes. Other types of auroras have been observed from space; for example, "poleward arcs" stretching sunward across the polar cap, the related "theta aurora", and "dayside arcs" near noon. These are relatively infrequent and poorly understood. Other interesting effects occur such as pulsating aurora, "black aurora" and their rarer companion "anti-black aurora" and subvisual red arcs. In addition to all these, a weak glow (often deep red) observed around the two polar cusps, the field lines separating the ones that close through Earth from those that are swept into the tail and close remotely.
Early work on the imaging of the auroras was done in 1949 by the University of Saskatchewan using the SCR-270 radar. The altitudes where auroral emissions occur were revealed by Carl Størmer and his colleagues, who used cameras to triangulate more than 12,000 auroras. They discovered that most of the light is produced between 90 and 150 km (56 and 93 mi) above the ground, while extending at times to more than 1,000 km (620 mi).
Brekke (1994) also described some auroras as curtains. The similarity to curtains is often enhanced by folds within the arcs. Arcs can fragment or break up into separate, at times rapidly changing, often rayed features that may fill the whole sky. These are also known as discrete auroras, which are at times bright enough to read a newspaper by at night.
These forms are consistent with auroras being shaped by Earth's magnetic field. The appearances of arcs, rays, curtains, and coronas are determined by the shapes of the luminous parts of the atmosphere and a viewer's position.
In addition, the aurora and associated currents produce a strong radio emission around 150 kHz known as auroral kilometric radiation (AKR), discovered in 1972. Ionospheric absorption makes AKR only observable from space. X-ray emissions, originating from the particles associated with auroras, have also been detected.
In 2016, more than fifty citizen science observations described what was to them an unknown type of aurora which they named "STEVE", for "Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement". STEVE is not an aurora but is caused by a 25 km (16 mi) wide ribbon of hot plasma at an altitude of 450 km (280 mi), with a temperature of 6,000 K (5,730 C; 10,340 F) and flowing at a speed of 6 km/s (3.7 mi/s) (compared to 10 m/s (33 ft/s) outside the ribbon).
The processes that cause STEVE also are associated with a picket-fence aurora, although the latter can be seen without STEVE. It is an aurora because it is caused by precipitation of electrons in the atmosphere but it appears outside the auroral oval, closer to the equator than typical auroras. When the picket-fence aurora appears with STEVE, it is below.
First reported in 2020 and confirmed in 2021 the dune aurora phenomenon was discovered by Finnish citizen scientists. It consists of regularly-spaced, parallel stripes of brighter emission in the green diffuse aurora which give the impression of sand dunes. The phenomenon is believed to be caused by the modulation of atomic oxygen density by a large-scale atmospheric wave travelling horizontally in a waveguide through an inversion layer in the mesosphere in presence of electron precipitation.
Horse-collar aurora (HCA) are auroral features in which the auroral ellipse shifts poleward during the dawn and dusk portions and the polar cap becomes teardrop-shaped. They form during periods when the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) is permanently northward, when the IMF clock angle is small. Their formation is associated with the closure of the magnetic flux at the top of the dayside magnetosphere by the double lobe reconnection (DLR). There are approximately 8 HCA events per month, with no seasonal dependence, and that the IMF must be within 30 degrees of northwards.
A full understanding of the physical processes which lead to different types of auroras is still incomplete, but the basic cause involves the interaction of the solar wind with Earth's magnetosphere. The varying intensity of the solar wind produces effects of different magnitudes but includes one or more of the following physical scenarios.
The details of these phenomena are not fully understood. However, it is clear that the prime source of auroral particles is the solar wind feeding the magnetosphere, the reservoir containing the radiation zones and temporarily magnetically trapped particles confined by the geomagnetic field, coupled with particle acceleration processes.
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. Protons are also associated with auroras, both discrete and diffuse. 041b061a72