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Humans are not alone in showing a preference for coastlines. New observations suggest that auroras--those brilliant curtains of light seen in the night sky of the polar regions--may also favor Earth's coastlines on occasion. A camera designed to image the Earth's aurora from NASA's Polar spacecraft has provided strong evidence that coastlines do sometimes influence the spatial distribution of these colorful, shimmering lights. The photographs produced by Polar's state-of-the-art camera shows auroral arcs sometimes following coastlines for hundreds of miles. At other times, the coastlines appear to deflect or dim the auroral arc. No theory can presently account for the formation of such coastline auroras.

[Greenland Aurora]

An auroral arc is deflected along the Greenland shore at Kong Christian IX's Land for a distance of about 500 miles. VIS Low Resolution Camera, 03 Jan 97 (97003), 21:42:02 UT, 557.7 nm. Visible Imaging System/Polar, The University of Iowa.

This surprising finding was announced at the 1998 spring meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Boston by three physicists from the University of Iowa--Louis A. Frank, John B. Sigwarth and David D. Morgan. The three searched for the coastline effect in approximately 9,000 images taken in January 1997 by Polar's Visible Imaging System. After eliminating coincidental alignments, they found 100-to-200 cases where the aurora was indeed truly aligned with the coastline. When it occurs, the alignment is both short-lived, lasting just a matter of minutes, and limited spatially, covering just a fraction of the total auroral arc, usually somewhere between 180 to 300 miles.

"While the alignment of auroras along coastlines is a relatively rare occurrence," notes Frank, who has devoted much of his scientific career to the study of the aurora and other effects of solar plasmas on planetary atmospheres, "it shows up quite dramatically in our images."

[Greenland Aurora]

An aurora hugs the eastern coast of Greenland beginning at Scoresbysund and extending northward for about 400 miles. VIS Low Resolution Camera, 11 Jan 97 (97011), 23:16:08 UT, 557.7 nm. Visible Imaging System/Polar, The University of Iowa.

The first person to notice a coastline effect on the spatial distribution of the auroral light was the Russian explorer Admiral Ferdinand Von Wrangel. His ground-based observations of this remarkable phenomenon occurred during his polar expedition of 1820 to 1823 and were recorded in his narrative of the expedition, which was published in Berlin in 1839. The Russian Polar expedition of 1900-1901 obtained a second set of auroral observations from the western coast of the Taimyr Peninsula and on Kotelnyy Island in Russia's northern regions, but these were not analyzed and published until the early 1960s. Wrangel's observations are all the more remarkable given just how difficult it is for a ground observer to determine the position of an auroral arc relative to the coastline. Because of this inherent difficulty, however, the scientific community essentially chose to ignore Wrangel's observations for more than a century and a half. "It appears that all of us were premature in our judgment," notes Frank, "myself included."

[Alaska Aurora]

This intense auroral arc is aligned with the northern coast of Alaska and extends for a distance of 400 miles from Barrow eastward over Prudhoe Bay and on to Kaktovik. VIS Low Resolution Camera, 13 Jan 97 (97013), 10:16:38 UT, 557.7 nm. Visible Imaging System/Polar, The University of Iowa.

Now a visible light camera aboard the Polar spacecraft, which is operated by the Goddard Space Flight Center, has verified the existence of the coastline effect on the aurora. The spacecraft's camera, which acquires auroral images at visible wavelengths (atomic oxygen emissions at 557.7 nm), is able to look down on the aurora from its vantage point high above the Earth (16,000 to 29,000 miles high). This provides a clear advantage over the ground observer who has a much more limited view of the sky and is subject to the whims of cloud cover.

Typically, the aurora is oval shaped, ranges over thousands of miles, and lasts approximately an hour. But these coastline arcs can be as thin as tens of miles, align along coastlines for several hundred miles, and last several minutes. The phenomenon normally occurs during the early phase of an auroral storm.

[Alaska/Canada Aurora]

A long coastline aurora of about 800 miles extends eastward from Wainwright, Alaska to Paulatuk, located along the northern shore of the Northwest Territories in Canada. VIS Low Resolution Camera, 19 Jan 97 (97019), 10:04:28 UT, 557.7 nm. Visible Imaging System/Polar, The University of Iowa.

Though scientists cannot yet explain why this coastline effect occurs, part of the answer seems to lie in the knowledge that ground currents are much greater off shore because sea water is a better conductor of electricity than the land. "It would appear," notes Frank, "that at certain times the ionosphere is primed for the generation of the thin arcs over the coastlines and that the arcs are tickled into brightening by the magnetic or electric fields from the ground currents. This is quite remarkable because these auroral lights are occurring at altitudes of 60 to 200 miles above the shores."

Coincidentally, additional support for the existence of coastline auroras comes from a recent study by a team of scientists at the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki, Finland. They, too, found examples of coast-alignments in their examination of ground-based auroral images from the Finnish network of auroral all-sky cameras located in Northern Finland and Sweden.

[Western Greenland Aurora]

A bright arc is deflected by the western coast of Greenland at Godthab and becomes aligned along the southern tip for a distance of about 300 miles. This image is kindly referred to as the "red lobster attacking Greenland" because of its unusual geometry. VIS Low Resolution Camera, 25 Jan 97 (97025), 03:32:41 UT, 557.7 nm. Visible Imaging System/Polar, The University of Iowa.

Many aspects of the Earth's glimmering auroral lights remain a mystery and are actively being pursued by orbiting spacecraft and ground-based observatories. We do know that the steady stream of charged particles from the Sun, which is known as the solar wind, interacts with Earth's magnetic field. This dynamic interaction accelerates the charged particles of the solar wind, and also those from our upper atmosphere, to higher speeds and subsequently funnels them into the upper atmosphere. This impact into the atoms and molecules of the upper atmosphere, primarily oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen, produces the colorful displays of the aurora since each type of molecule produces a characteristic color. The present finding of auroral emissions which are affected by the presence of a coastline offers a further challenge to our understanding because it has been always assumed that these lights were completely controlled by processes in and above the Earth's upper atmosphere, and not occasionally by the surface sea and land masses.

[Norway Aurora]

A bright arc forms above the Norwegian Sea east of Sortland, Norway. The intensity of the auroral light diminishes abruptly at the shoreline and remains relatively dim over the land. But the light's intensity increases again as the arc emerges over the sea near the Norwegian-Russian border. VIS Low Resolution Camera, 25 Jan 97 (97025), 20:09:45 UT, 557.7 nm. Visible Imaging System/Polar, The University of Iowa.

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