Evolution of a Coronal Hole

Dec. 26, 2016: Christmas 2016 was special for sky watchers around the Arctic Circle.  The skies filled with some of the best Northern Lights of the year, including rare outbursts of white and pink. The source of the display: A giant “coronal hole” in the sun’s atmosphere sprayed our planet with solar wind. The hole opened up in July 2016 and it has been strobing Earth with solar wind every ~28 days ever since as the hole pirouettes with the slowly rotating sun.

Spaceweather.com reader Stuart Green has prepared a plot showing the evolution of the coronal hole and the effect it has had on the magnetic field at his private observatory in Preston, England.  Click on the image to inspect the full 6 months:

Inset images come from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. The coronal hole is the giant dark region, starting small in July, then growing and shape-shifting as the year unfolds.

The background strip chart recording shows the instability of the magnetic field around Green’s private observatory. When the coronal hole is facing Earth, big changes are measured.

“I’ve been recording geomagnetic activity over the past three years using a home built/ home designed magnetometer,” says Green. “The sensor is buried in my garden about 0.5m below the surface in an East/West orientation to allow very sensitive (sub nanotesla) measurements of magnetic declination during geomagnetic storms. The plots show the change in magnetic flux density in nanotesla occurring between readings every 2.5 minutes.”

Green’s presentation suggests that this yawning hole is a long-lived feature on the sun, and it will probably be back as potent as ever 28 days from now.  Stay tuned for magnetic unrest–and more Arctic auroras–in January.

White Auroras

Dec. 25, 2016: Auroras are usually green. Occasionally, other colors appear: red, purple, blue. One color that never shows itself, however, is white–that is, not until last night. “I saw white auroras over Tromsø, Norway!” reports veteran observer Markus Varik. He recorded the phenomenon in this photo:

“I’ve been working more than 400 nights as a Northern Lights guide, and although sometimes I think I’ve seen it all, never I have witnessed white auroras like that,” says Varik. “It was amazing to see it unravel white like that in front of my eyes. Pure magic!”

Auroras get their colors from specific elements in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Green auroras, for instance, come from atomic oxygen; blue is associated with molecular nitrogen. No element produces white. So where did it come from?

An important clue: Elsewhere in Scandinavia, intense ribbons of pale pink appeared. Here is a specimen recorded by an automated auroracam in Abisko, Sweden:

Sarah Skinner, a tour guide with Lights over Lapland, saw the display: “OMG, it was the pinkest aurora ever!”

The ‘white auroras’ Varik photographed might actually be pink auroras filtered and paled by low-hanging clouds. Indeed, there is a strong hint of pink in Varik’s photo.

Pink auroras are somewhat rare, but hardly unprecedented. They appear when  energetic particles from space descend lower than usual, striking nitrogen molecules at the 100 km level and below. Look for more in the aurora photo gallery:

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

Polar Stratospheric Clouds

Dec. 9, 2016: The stratosphere above the Arctic Circle is getting cold … very cold.  That’s the only way to explain these colorful clouds that materialized over Kiruna, Sweden, on Dec. 9th:

“Polar stratospheric clouds are back in the subarctic,” reports photographer Mia Stålnacke. “They were brilliantly beautiful today.”

Icy polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) form in the lower stratosphere when temperatures drop to around -85ºC. That’s how cold it has to be for ice crystals to form in the very dry stratosphere. High-altitude sunlight shining through tiny ice particles ~10µm across produce the characteristic bright iridescent colors.

“Once seen they are never forgotten,” says atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley. “Polar stratospheric clouds have much more vivid colors than ordinary iridescent clouds, which are very much poor relations and seen frequently all over the world.”

Once thought to be mere curiosities, some PSCs are now known to be associated with the destruction of ozone. Indeed, an ozone hole formed over the UK in Feb. 2016 following an outbreak of ozone-destroying Type 1 PSCs.

“Last winter we had these clouds almost daily for long periods of time,” says Stålnacke. Arctic sky watchers are encouraged to be alert for more in the days ahead. The best time to look is just before sunrise or after sunset.

Mesospheric Bore

Nov. 29, 2016: This month, a lot is happening in the mesosphere. The mesosphere is a layer of Earth’s atmosphere above the stratosphere; it is the realm of sprites, noctilucent clouds (NLCs), and airglow. Starting on Nov. 17th, NASA’s AIM spacecraft spotted bright noctilucent clouds forming in the mesosphere above Antarctica. Then, in an apparently unrelated development on Nov. 24th, the normal dome of airglow over China split in two. Xiao Shuai photographed the event from Mount Balang in Sichuan:

This is called a “mesospheric bore”–and not because it’s dull.  A bore is a type of atmospheric wave with deep ripples at its leading edge.  Indeed, you can see the ripples in Shuai’s photo separating the zone of airglow from clear sky.

Bores fall into the category of “gravity waves”—so called because gravity acts as the restoring force essential to wave motion. Analogy: Boats in water. When a boat goes tearing across a lake, water in front of the boat is pushed upward. Gravity pulls the water back down again and this sets up a wave.

In this case, instead of water, rarefied air is the medium through which the wave propagates.  The sudden boundary in the airglow layer is probably akin to a hydraulic jump.  But what created the disturbance in the first place?  (What is the ‘boat’?) No one knows.

“There may be updates in the coming days as scientists from NASA and the Chinese Academy of Science check data from satellites to learn more about this event,” says Jeff Dai, who has been helping Xiao Shuai process and communicate his extraordinary images. “Also, we encourage other photographers from Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and India to submit their images of the wave.”

Realtime Space Weather Photo Gallery

Noctilucent Clouds Appear over Antarctica

Nov. 24, 2016: This just in from NASA’s AIM spacecraft: The sky above Antarctica is glowing electric blue. A ring of bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) has formed around the South Pole, shown here in a Nov. 24th image taken by the spacecraft’s Cloud Imaging and Particle Size (CIPS) Instrument:

“This season started on Nov. 17th, and is tied with 2013 for the earliest southern hemisphere season in the CIPS data record,” says Cora Randall, a member of the AIM science team at the University of Colorado.

NLCs are Earth’s highest clouds. They form more than 80 km above Earth’s surface. Indeed, they are a mixture of Earth and space:  Wisps of summertime water vapor rising from the planet below wrap themselves around meteoroids, forming tiny crystals of ice. Emphasis on summertime; NLCs appear on the eve of summer in both hemispheres.

There is growing evidence that noctilucent clouds are boosted by climate change.  In recent years they have been sighted at lower latitudes than ever before, and they often get started in earlier months as well.

“The early start of the 2016 season was not at all a surprise,” says Randall. “The southern hemisphere polar stratospheric winds switched to their summer-like state quite early this year.”

Readers, you can monitor developments over Antarctica right here on Spaceweather.com. “Daily daisies” from NASA’s AIM spacecraft are automatically posted every 24 hours, showing the dance of electric-blue around the frozen continent.

Realtime Noctilucent Cloud Photo Gallery

Cosmic Rays Continue to Intensify

Nov. 15, 2016: As the sunspot cycle declines, we expect cosmic rays to increase. Is this actually happening? The answer is “yes.” Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been monitoring radiation levels in the stratosphere with frequent high-altitude balloon flights over California. Here are the latest results, current as of Nov. 11, 2016:

Data show that cosmic ray levels are intensifying with an 11% increase since March 2015.

Cosmic rays are high-energy photons and subatomic particles accelerated in our direction by distant supernovas and other violent events in the Milky Way. Usually, cosmic rays are held at bay by the sun’s magnetic field, which envelops and protects all the planets in the Solar System. But the sun’s magnetic shield is weakening as the solar cycle shifts from Solar Max to Solar Minimum. As the sunspot cycle goes down, cosmic rays go up.

The sensors we send to the stratosphere measure X-rays and gamma-rays which are produced by the crash of primary cosmic rays into Earth’s atmosphere. In this way we are able to track increasing levels of radiation. The increase is expected to continue for years to come as solar activity plunges toward a deep Solar Minimum in 2019-2020.

Recently, we have expanded the scope of our measurements beyond California with launch sites in three continents: North America, South America and soon above the Arctic Circle in Europe. This Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network will allow us to probe the variable protection we receive from Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere as a function of location around the globe.

Sunspot Cycle at Lowest Level in 5 Years

Nov. 15, 2016: The sun has looked remarkably blank lately, with few dark cores interrupting the featureless solar disk.  This is a sign that Solar Minimum is coming.  Indeed, sunspot counts have just reached their lowest level since 2011. With respect to the sunspot cycle, you are here:

The solar cycle is like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between periods of high and low sunspot number every 11 years. These data from NOAA show that the pendulum is swinging toward low sunspot numbers even faster than expected. (The red line is the forecast; black dots are actual measurements.). Given the current progression, forecasters expect the cycle to bottom out with a deep Solar Minimum in 2019-2020.

Solar Minimum is widely misunderstood.  Many people think it brings a period of dull quiet. In fact, space weather changes in interesting ways. For instance, as the extreme ultraviolet output of the sun decreases, the upper atmosphere of Earth cools and collapses. This allows space junk to accumulate around our planet. Also, the heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth; galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar system and our atmosphere with relative ease. (More on this below.) Meanwhile, geomagnetic storms and auroras will continue–caused mainly by solar wind streams instead of CMEs. Indeed, Solar Minimum is coming, but it won’t be dull.

COSMIC RAYS CONTINUE TO INTENSIFY: As the sunspot cycle declines, we expect cosmic rays to increase. Is this actually happening? The answer is “yes.” Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been monitoring radiation levels in the stratosphere with frequent high-altitude balloon flights over California. Here are the latest results, current as of Nov. 11, 2016:

Data show that cosmic ray levels are intensifying with an 11% increase since March 2015.

Cosmic rays are high-energy photons and subatomic particles accelerated in our direction by distant supernovas and other violent events in the Milky Way. Usually, cosmic rays are held at bay by the sun’s magnetic field, which envelops and protects all the planets in the Solar System. But the sun’s magnetic shield is weakening as the solar cycle shifts from Solar Max to Solar Minimum. As the sunspot cycle goes down, cosmic rays go up.

The sensors we send to the stratosphere measure X-rays and gamma-rays which are produced by the crash of primary cosmic rays into Earth’s atmosphere. In this way we are able to track increasing levels of radiation. The increase is expected to continue for years to come as solar activity plunges toward a deep Solar Minimum in 2019-2020.

Recently, we have expanded the scope of our measurements beyond California with launch sites in three continents: North America, South America and soon above the Arctic Circle in Europe. This Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network will allow us to probe the variable protection we receive from Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere as a function of location around the globe.

Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network

For the past 2 years, Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been launching “space weather balloons” to measure cosmic rays in the atmosphere.  Regular flights over California show that atmospheric radiation is intensifying in response to changes in the solar cycle.  Now, our monitoring program is going global.  In recent months we have been developing launch sites in multiple US states as well as South America and Europe. This is what the International Space Weather Ballooning Network looks like in October 2016:

Recent additions expand our coverage north of the Arctic Circle (Sweden) and closer to the core of the South Atlantic Anomaly (Argentina).  We also hope to add a site in Antarctica in 2018.

The purpose of launching balloons from so many places is to map out the distribution of cosmic rays around our planet. A single launch site is simply not enough to reveal the nonuniform shielding of our planet’s magnetic field and the complicated response of our atmosphere to changes in solar activity.

Our first test of the network validated these ideas. During a 48 hour period from August 20th-22nd we launched 4 balloons in quick succession from southern Chile, California, Oregon, and Washington. The ascending payloads sampled atmospheric radiation (X-rays and gamma-rays) from ground level to the stratosphere over a geographical range of more than 10,000 km. Here are the results:

The curves show radiation levels vs. altitude for each of the four sites. Numbers in parentheses are magnetic latitude–a measure of distance from Earth’s magnetic equator.

At a glance we can see that atmospheric radiation is a strong function of magnetic latitude. Washington State at +53o has more than twice the amount of radiation as southern Chile at -29o–despite the fact that the Chilean balloon flew into the outskirts of the South Atlantic Anomaly. Clearly, Earth’s magnetic field provides very uneven protection against cosmic rays.

To explore these findings further, we are planning additional network launches every month from now on, adding new sites as often as possible. A launch from inside the Arctic Circle in January 2017 is highly anticipated. Stay tuned for updates from the Intercontinental SWx Balloon Network.

Amazing Airglow above Easter Island

by Dr. Tony Phillips (Spaceweather.com)

Oct. 4, 2016: Not every colorful light in the night sky is an aurora.  Especially not in the South Pacific. Yuri Beletsky was on a beach in Easter Island, Chile, two nights ago when the starry canopy turned red:

“There was no fire,” says Beletsky. “This is an amazing display of airglow.”

Airglow is aurora-like phenomenon caused by chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere. Human eyes seldom notice the faint glow, because it is usually very faint, but it can be photographed on almost any clear dark night, anywhere in the world.

Beletsky is a veteran photographer of airglow, having captured it dozens of times from sites in Chile and the South Pacific. “The intensity of airglow varies, and sometimes it can be more prominent, as it was on Oct. 2nd,” he says.

The curious thing about Beletsky’s photo is not the intensity of the airglow, but rather its color–red. Airglow is usually green, the color of light from oxygen atoms some 90 km to 100 km above Earth’s surface. Where does the red come from? Instead of oxygen, OH can produce the ruddy hue. These neutral molecules (not to be confused with the OH- ion found in aqueous solutions) exist in a thin layer 85 km high where gravity waves often impress the red glow with a dramatic rippling structure.

Realtime Airglow Photo Gallery

Sprites above Hurricane Matthew

by Dr. Tony Phillips (Spaceweather.com)

Oct. 2, 2016: On Oct. 1st, Earth weather met space weather above Hurricane Matthew.  As the giant storm system was approaching the Greater Antilles, Frankie Lucena of Puerto Rico photographed red sprites shooting up from the thunderclouds:

Sprites are a strange and beautiful form of lightning that shoot up from the tops of electrical storms. They reach all the way up to the edge of space alongside meteors, auroras, and noctilucent clouds. Some researchers believe cosmic rays help trigger sprites, making them a  true space weather phenomenon.

Seeing sprites above a hurricane is rare. Many hurricanes don’t even have regular lightning because the storms lack a key ingredient for electrical activity: vertical winds. (For more information read the Science@NASA article “Electric Hurricanes.”) But Matthew is not a typical hurricane.  It’s one of the most powerful in recent years, briefly reaching Category 5 at about the time Lucena photographed the sprites.  Perhaps extra-strong winds in the vicinity of the storm set the stage for upward-reaching bolts.

Sprite photographers across the Caribbean and the southeastern USA should be alert for more as the storm system approaches the mainland: observing tips.

Realtime Sprite Photo Gallery