Birkeland currents stronger in the northern hemisphere, vary with the season

Birkeland currents stronger in the northern hemisphere, vary with the season

ESA’s Swarm mission has discovered that this seasonal variation of Birkeland currents, strong electric currents in the upper atmosphere, is not the same in the north and south polar regions.

Named after Kristian Birkeland, the scientist a century ago who first postulated that the ‘northern lights’ were linked to electrically charged particles in the solar wind, these currents flow along Earth’s magnetic field lines in the polar regions. Magnetic field measurements from ESA’s Swarm satellite constellation are allowing scientists to understand more about these powerful currents, which carry up to 1 TW of electric power to the upper atmosphere. This is about 30 times the energy consumed in New York during a heatwave.

It is important to understand the interplay between these Birkeland currents and the solar wind that bombards our planet and that can potentially cause power and communication blackouts.

New findings show how three years of measurements from the mission were combined with measurements from Germany’s earlier Champ satellite to produce global climatological maps of these currents, ESA announced.

Moreover, these results show differences between currents in the northern and southern hemisphere, how they change with the season and how they vary according to the strength of the solar wind.

Seasonal asymmetry of Birkeland curents

Three years of measurements from ESA’s Swarm mission have been combined with measurements from Germany’s earlier Champ satellite to produce global climatological maps of Birkeland currents. These currents tend to be weak for a northwards interplanetary field and strong for a southwards field. Importantly, these new results also reveal that the strength of the currents is not the same in both hemispheres. These hemispheric differences may relate to asymmetry in Earth’s main magnetic field. Credit: DTU/BSS

“Interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and the interplanetary magnetic field – meaning part of the Sun’s magnetic field carried by solar wind – depends on how the interplanetary field is orientated. While this sounds complicated, it means that hardly any solar wind can enter the magnetosphere and arrive at Earth if the interplanetary magnetic field points north, parallel to Earth’s magnetic field," Karl Laundal, from the Birkeland Centre for Space Science, explained.

“On the other hand, if the interplanetary field points south, the opposite is true and this allows a connection to be made with Earth’s magnetic field. Part of the energy in solar wind then further energizes the charged particles that are responsible for the visible light displays of the auroras,” Laundal said.

Birkeland currents, therefore, tend to be weak for a northwards interplanetary field and strong for a southwards field.

Importantly, these new results also reveal that the strength of the currents is not the same in both hemispheres. These hemispheric differences may relate to asymmetry in Earth’s main magnetic field.

In fact, the two geomagnetic poles are not geometrically opposite to one another, and the magnetic field intensity is also not the same in the north as in the south.

Seasonal asymmetry of Birkeland currents in detail

Seasonal asymmetry of Birkeland currents in detail. Credit: DTU/BSS

“The main reason for this probably has to do with differences in Earth’s main field. Such differences imply that the ionosphere–magnetosphere coupling is different in the two hemispheres. In particular, the magnetic pole is more offset with respect to the geographic pole in the south compared to north, which leads to different variations in sunlight in the ‘magnetic hemispheres’. Because of these differences, the two hemispheres do not respond symmetrically to solar wind driving or changing seasons," Laundal said.

“Swarm is a fantastic tool for space science studies. The high-quality measurements and the fact that there are three satellites working in concert hold many new clues about how our home planet interacts with the space around it. It’s a fascinating time."

Featured image: Seasonal asymmetry of Birkeland currents. Credit: DTU/BSS

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