Research pioneers

"Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination"
~ John Dewey


Our current understanding of the aurora owes a great deal of its knowledge to groundbreaking concepts proposed by pioneers of auroral research.

Magnetic North Pole
If you have used a compass for navigation purposes, you know that the needle points to the north. However, it is not pointing to the geographic North Pole, it is pointing to the magnetic pole. The geographic and magnetic poles are not located at the same place. The location of the magnetic North Pole tends to shift over time. The center of the northern auroral oval is the magnetic North Pole, not the geographic North Pole.

The British Admiralty became interested in locating the magnetic pole for navigation purposes in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, Sir John Ross, a scientist and polar explorer, and his cousin, James Ross, discovered the northern magnetic pole on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula in Northern Canada. Scientists track the movement of the geomagnetic pole which is currently located near Ellesmere Island in Northern Canada.


The geomagnetic North pole
is currently located in
Northern Canada
click to see larger image

Helpful links

Earth's North Magnetic Pole
Natural Resources Canada

"Sir John Ross"
National Library of Canada

Sydney Chapman page

The International
Geophysical Year (1957-58)

James A. Van Allen
Sputnik biographies

Observing sunspots

Auroral oval
During the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), auroral scientists found that the aurora is distributed along an oblong belt called the auroral oval. In 1970, images of the aurora obtained by satellites circling Earth confirmed the IGY discovery. Images revealed two beautiful rings of aurora, one in the northern hemisphere above the Arctic and the other in the southern hemisphere above the Antarctic continent. The northern oval is called the aurora borealis and the southern one, the aurora australis.

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Auroral oval
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The concept of the magnetosphere was developed by Sydney Chapman and his student Vincenzo Ferraro. It was originally referred to as the Chapman-Ferraro cavity. The magnetosphere has a complicated internal structure, consisting of the Van Allen belts, the plasma sheet, and the magnetotail.

Sydney Chapman
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Van Allen belts
The Van Allen belts were discovered by University of Iowa professor James Van Allen in the first triumph of the US space exploration program. These radiation belts are bands of highly energized particles trapped in Earth's geomagnetic fields. Auroral scientists have learned that the magnetized planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, have a magnetosphere and aurora, while the non-magnetized planets, such as Venus and Mars, do not have a magnetosphere or aurora.


James Van Allen
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The Solar connection
Richard C. Carrington, an English solar physicist and astronomer, made the first tentative connection between solar activity and auroral displays. In 1859 he observed a solar flare which was followed by intense auroral activity the next night. The science world was deeply skeptical and this solar-terrestrial connection was still not widely accepted 50 years later despite exhaustive studies demonstrating the correlation between solar activity, auroral activity, and geomagnetic disturbances.


Sketch of sunspots
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Geophysical Institute
903 Koyukuk Drive, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-7320
site last modified: July 2003 maintained by Asahi Aurora Web Manager