Did You Know Seismometers are Helping to Decode the Aurora's Secrets?

December 12, 2023

Earthquakes and the Aurora Borealis might seem like distant phenomena, but recent research from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the U.S. Geological Survey reveals an unexpected connection between these two natural wonders.

Seismometers: Unlikely Auroral Observers
Seismometers, typically used to measure ground motion, are proving to be an unexpected ally in studying the aurora. These instruments, part of the USArray Transportable Array across Alaska, were designed for earthquake monitoring, but researchers have unveiled a new capability—they can detect magnetic signals from the aurora borealis.

A Dance of Lights and Wave
In a groundbreaking study, researchers, including Carl Tape, associate professor of geophysics at UAF, found that seismometers capture magnetic fluctuations during aurora displays. A direct link between the lights in the sky and seismic recordings on the ground was revealed when pairing seismometers with magnetometers and all-sky cameras during three aurora events.

Unveiling the Connection
The study documented the simultaneous occurrence of aurora images in the night sky, strong magnetic fluctuations recorded by magnetometers, and corresponding variations in seismic data. This synergy suggests that seismometers, despite being designed for ground motion, can enhance aurora monitoring, providing a cost-effective alternative to high-sensitivity magnetometers.

Expanding the Monitoring Network
Alaska boasts more than 200 seismometers, 13 magnetometers, and six all-sky cameras spread across its expanse. These instruments, part of the EarthScope project, create a broad seismic array, making them an ideal tool to capture the widespread signature of auroral activity. This expanded monitoring network could significantly improve our understanding of the aurora's spatial variations.

Bridging Centuries of Discovery
While scientists in 1741 first noticed a connection between auroras and magnetic deviations, today's discoveries deepen our understanding. The Alaska seismic stations present an opportunity to bridge centuries of discovery, helping us comprehend the intricate variations in auroral displays, and showcasing seismometers as more than just ground motion detectors.

The Big Picture
The convergence of seismology and auroral research exemplifies a growing trend in interdisciplinary studies. 

The next steps involve refining the integration of seismometers into auroral monitoring and potentially expanding the seismic array, indicating a trajectory toward deeper celestial insights.  This innovative use of existing infrastructure showcases the potential for further interdisciplinary discoveries, reminding us that the Earth's mysteries often unfold in unexpected ways.

Go Deeper
For those eager to delve further into the study, explore the published paper in Seismological Research Letters. This valuable resource provides in-depth insights into the methods, findings, and implications of this groundbreaking research.