Crowdsourcing improves aurora forecasts

Aurorasaurus collects public reports of the northern and southern lights directly and by scanning social media. The data helps refine aurora forecasts. Credit: Aurorasaurus.org

Aurorasaurus is a citizen science project that hopes to improve space weather forecasts. It gathers public reports of the northern and southern lights on its website and through its mobile app. It also scans social media as the public shares their experiences seeing the glowing bands of light in the sky. Earlier this month the project’s scientists published a paper (Space Weather DOI: 10.1002/2015SW001320) in which they report how the public sees aurorae much further south than professional models predict. (The paper isn’t free but you can read the Nasa press release).

Forecasting space weather is still in its infancy. Most solar storms do not hit Earth and when they do, the orientation of Earth’s magnetic fields often deflects the storm. Even when the right sequence of events causes a geomagnetic storm here on Earth, scientists must rely on a cobbled-together network of sensors and observatories that were designed to study other things.

Aurorasaurus received 160 reports when a solar storm struck Earth on St. Patrick’s Day last year. It also gathered more than 250 social media mentions as people across Northern Europe and North America spotted the solar storm-generated aurora glowing and twisting in the night sky. This video released by Aurorasaurus maps those reports on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s forecast:

The public sightings extended further south than the existing model forecasted. “Using these observations, we can make better short-term predictions of when and where the aurora is for aurora enthusiasts — and scientists,” Aurorasaurus lead scientist Elizabeth MacDonald said in the Nasa press release.

A more recent solar storm struck Earth last week and generated aurorae that people across the United Kingdom could see. AuroraWatch UK's scientists explained how their alert system missed it. It relies on a single set of instruments on the campus of Lancaster University. Their software also had hard-coded assumptions hard that led the system to ignore the data. The strength of the solar storm was too weak to trigger an alert. At the same time, however, Earth's magnetic field was weaker allowing the aurora to move south over the entire country. Nobody had seen that before so it was not built into the scientists' models.

The technology needed to monitor space weather on a daily basis has only been available for a few decades which means the science is still playing catch up. For now citizen scientists can help by reporting any signs of aurorae to Aurorasaurus.

"Without the citizen science observations, Aurorasaurus wouldn't have been able to improve our models of where people can see the aurora," Lancaster University scientist Nathan Case told Nasa. "The team is very thankful for our community's dedication and are excited to have more people sign up."