Users of Aurorasaurus - a citizen science project that tracks auroras through its website, mobile apps and Twitter - have documented some of the biggest and recent aurora displays.
Researchers found that citizen scientists are regularly able to spot auroras farther south of an area where prediction models indicated. "Using these observations, we can make better short-term predictions of when and where the aurora is for aurora enthusiasts - and scientists," said Liz MacDonald, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in US.
Auroras are features of geomagnetic storms. While geomagnetic storms can lead to beautiful auroras, they can also cause power outages and interrupt satellite systems. Though many satellites study the Sun and near-Earth space environment responsible for auroras, predicting precisely where, when and how strongly they will occur on Earth is challenging. One reason is because large geomagnetic storms occur infrequently so scientists do not have as much data on them.
Aurorasaurus can help provide more data points in the form of citizen science observations. Sky watchers can submit their aurora sightings directly to the website or use the free Aurorasaurus mobile apps. The project also searches Twitter using keywords to find aurora-related tweets. Users can then confirm or deny these crowd-sourced tweets.
The submitted observations and verified tweets are displayed on a global map showing real-time auroral visibility. The map also includes a "view-line" that predicts where a person should see the aurora based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's OVATION Aurora Forecast Model. After a certain number of users have reported aurora sightings in a local area or near the view-line, Aurorasaurus sends out notifications to nearby registered users.
After analysing 500 citizen science aurora observations during March and April last year - encompassing one of the biggest geomagnetic storm of the past decade and several smaller storms - the team found that many people reported seeing the aurora further equatorward (that is, farther south in the Northern Hemisphere, and farther north in the Southern Hemisphere) than the OVATION Prime model predicted.
The team now incorporates the citizen science observations to improve the aurora view-line on the project's map. "Without the citizen science observations, Aurorasaurus wouldn't have been able to improve our models of where people can see the aurora," said the study's lead author, Nathan Case, a previous Aurorasaurus team member and now a senior research associate at Lancaster University, UK. The study was published in the Space Weather journal.