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Northern Lights strike back at Arctic drilling

The Northern Lights (or aurora borealis) are one of the most impressive of natural wonders, filling the sky with shimmering patterns of green and yellow. The auroras take place when solar winds disturb the Earth’s magnetosphere (located some 65,000 kilometers or 40,000 miles from the Earth’s surface). This causes charged particles (electrons and protons) to move into the upper atmosphere (termed the thermosphere or exosphere). As these charged particles lose energy ionization and excitation occurs within other atmospheric particles. This is visualized in the form of color. Most auroras occur in a band known as the auroral zone, which, geographically is 3° to 6° wide in latitude and between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles.

A view of the Northern Lights

A view of the Northern Lights
by iFrederick

The aurora borealis is the most famous of these light effects (although the southern version, aurora australis, is similarly impressive.) The name “aurora borealis” dervices from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora; and the Greek word for the north wind, Boreas.

While the lights are impressive, they are causing problems for the controversial project of drilling in the Arctic to look for oil and other minerals. New research (it’s written in Norwegian) conducted by Inge Edvardsen, who is based at the University of Tromsø, indicates the colorful disturbances in the atmosphere affect a magnetic sensor, used by drilling operations use to determine their position, to malfunction. The consequence of this makes the drilling imprecise, leading to unexpected results. Dr. Edvardsen’ study shows that the farther northwards drilling takes place, the worse the problem becomes. The way to overcome this, the researcher suggests, is to use alternative measuring systems based below ground.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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