After 75 years, physicists have proven that surfing electrons going at speeds up to 45 million mph (or 72 million km/h) create the Northern Lights. Finally, after millennia of human observation, we can say that surfing electrons power the Aurora Borealis.
Or, as LiveScience put it:
“Physicists are super stoked to share definitive evidence that the Aurora Borealis— that colorful sky glow also known as the northern lights — is the result of gnarly electrons ‘surfing’ across the cosmos on powerful party waves.”
Surfing Electrons Riding the Waves
Greg Howes, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa, drew a comparison to electrons surfing. Notably, those waves are called Alfvén waves; powerful electromagnetic waves created during geomagnetic storms.
“Measurements revealed this small population of electrons undergoes ‘resonant acceleration’ by the Alfven wave’s electric field, similar to a surfer catching a wave and being continually accelerated as the surfer moves along with the wave,” said Howes.
Long ago, Russian physicist Lev Landau predicted the idea that electrons ‘surf’ on electric fields in 1946. Known as Landau damping, mathematicians proved Landau’s controversial ideas were on the right track 20 years later.
Since then, scientists proposed measuring Landau damping inside the Large Hadron Collider. Now, researchers from the University of Iowa proved Landau’s concept at the Large Plasma Device (LPD) in UCLA’s Basic Plasma Science Facility.
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Amazingly, for the first time, their experiments confirmed that Alfvén waves accelerated electrons.
See more about the Aurora Borealis Aurora Australis from Super Freaky Science!:
Observing Electrons Traveling Along Waves
Thus, as the electrons ride the waves, they reach high speeds and produce a light show in the sky.
First, to simulate the phenomena, the researchers generated plasma inside the 65-foot-long LPD vacuum chamber. Then, using a “specially designed antenna,” they sent Alfvén waves down the tunnel.
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According to Howes, the process was like “shaking a garden hose up and down quickly, and watching the wave travel along the hose.”
Meanwhile, another instrument detected that electrons were gaining energy near the wave.
Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t manage to simulate the look of the Aurora.
“These experiments let us make the key measurements that show that the space measurements and theory do, indeed, explain a major way in which the aurora are created,” said Craig Kletzing, the study co-author.
Thus, it will take further experimentation to show the full picture of how the beautiful Aurora is seen. Now, by understanding how electrons surf in the Earth’s atmosphere, researchers could find better ways to forecast the weather 10,000 miles above Earth.
Below, adventure photographer Chris Burkard shares his story of filming surfers under the Northern Lights in Iceland:
Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube