Why study the aurora?

"We will make it run the dynamos to supply our houses and streets with electric light;... and it shall develop the brains of our statesmen and legislators, to make them wiser and better and of more practical use than they are at present. Wonderful things will be done when we get the electricity of the aurora under our control."
~ Thomas W. Knox, The Voyage of the Vivian, 188んゐゎ4

Space weather - The lights of the aurora are only the end product of a complicated interaction between the sun and Earth. This interaction is a fundamental cosmic process which we can expect to find occurring around other stars and galaxies. Space weather is activity in the sun's upper atmosphere (which extends throughout the solar system) and includes radiation and plasma released by the sun which in turn can affect Earth's geomagnetic fields.

How does space weather affect you?

  • Radiation exposure: during extreme solar radiation storms, people travelling in airliners can receive the exposure equivalent of 100 chest x-rays.
  • Satellites: we are becoming increasingly dependent on satellites for communications (cell phones), navigation (GPS), etc. Solar radiation storms can interfere with, damage, or destroy satellites.
  • Radio communications: navigation signals and high frequency radio communications can be disrupted or even blacked out.
  • Power systems: geomagnetic storms can cause power outages by creating power grid fluctuations and damaging transformers.
  • Corrosion: the aurora induces strong electrical currents along good conductors such as oil and gas pipelines resulting in corrosion and possible leakage.
  • Migratory animals: the magnetosphere and atmosphere protect living things from radiation and plasma. However, creatures, like bees, that use Earth's magnetic fields to navigate are affected by geomagnetic fluctuations.
  • Tourism: one positive aspect of solar storms is the beautiful aurora. Visitors wanting to see the northern lights make up an increasingly important winter tourism industry in places like Fairbanks.

thumbnail of pipeline
The aurora induces strong
electric current in the
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline
click to see larger image


Helpful links


Space Weather Now

Space Environment Center
Frequently asked questions

Space Weather Guide
from NASA's Sun-Earth
Connection Education Forum

Alaska Division of Tourism:
Aurora Borealis

radio communications
can be disrupted
click to see larger image

Natural laboratory - the aurora is a plasma phenomenon in Earth's upper atmosphere. The magnetosphere and ionosphere act as a huge natural laboratory for studying plasma physics.




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