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Thermal imaging reveals Northern Lights as both beauty and beast

Published: 11 August 2020
Northern Lights
The Northern Lights over the Kitinen river in Sodankylä, Finland.

Space physicist Dr Daniel Whiter is investigating the impact on our planet of the huge amounts of energy brought into our atmosphere by the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.

The researcher at the University of Southampton is one year into a five-year fellowship from the Natural Environment Research Council.

The Northern Lights are caused by charged particles from space colliding with gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere at 40 million miles per hour.

In order to understand how this energy impacts our planet and whether it could even be affecting our climate, Daniel is developing novel techniques to measure the temperature at auroral heights. This has never been done accurately before, as the altitude is too high for weather balloons but too low for spacecraft.

He is using sensitive cameras equipped with colour filters to map atmospheric temperature, similar to a thermal imaging camera. This is combined with radar measurements of the upper atmosphere to estimate the electrical conductivity, before a computer simulation helps understand how different types of aurora are produced, what electric currents they generate, and how the aurora affects the temperature and chemistry of the upper atmosphere.

“The aurora definitely heats the upper atmosphere,” Daniel says. “The Met Office is starting to expand its models to the upper atmosphere, as we are learning that there is more coupling between layers of the atmosphere than previously thought. We don’t know how it influences the Earth’s climate yet, but it’s something we, and the Met Office, want to understand.”

Read the full feature in the Summer 2020 edition of Re:action, the University’s research and enterprise magazine.




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