March 9, 2016 5:26 pm
Updated: March 9, 2016 5:31 pm

Scientists want your help to better predict northern lights

Photographer Matt Melnyk took this photo in the Sage Hill area of Calgary, Alberta, on March 17, 2015.

Courtesy Matt Melnyk
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Who doesn’t love the idea of walking outside on a clear night and seeing the northern lights dancing in the sky above? Now you can help those who forecast the beautiful displays.

In a study published in the American Geophysical Union’s journal Space Weather last week, researchers concluded that people like you — citizen scientists — have often spotted the northern lights, called aurora, farther south than models have forecasted.

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READ MORE: IN PHOTOS—Brilliant northern lights display illuminates the skies across Europe

Scientists are now asking for your help by reporting northern lights sightings at Aurorasaurus.

This site is an easy way to report seeing aurorae. And in Canada, where the northern lights are frequently visible in higher latitudes, you could be a big help in refining forecasts.

The site also scans for tweets about aurorae. However, not every tweet with the word “aurora” means that it’s a northern lights report. So those aurora-related tweets are placed on a map, and then users are asked to verify if the tweet was a sighting or not.

This map found on aurorasaurus.org shows an aurora storm on March 6, 2016. Citizen scientists reported seeing aurora in the midlands of England, the north coast of the Netherlands, and areas in the United States such as Maine, New York, Minnesota and North Dakota.

Aurorasaurus

To illustrate how valuable citizen science (even simply crowd-sourced content) is helpful, NASA notes the geomagnetic storm of March 17, 2015. The St. Patrick’s Day strong geomagnetic storm triggered reports from around the world through social media. More than 160 sightings were reported on Aurorasaurus, and a further 250 were verified on Twitter.

When the scientists analyzed this data, as well as observations in March and April, they found the there were more reports from further south in the Northern Hemisphere and further north in the Southern Hemisphere (where the aurora is called the southern lights or aurora australis) than what models had predicted.

In the video below, you can see the aurora (northern lights) model. The red indicates a high probability that an aurora will be visible with yellow and then green being a lower probability. Sightings are green dots, with Twitter reports being blue and negative reports, red.

WATCH: OVATION model and eyewitness reports

Geomagnetic storms cause the northern lights. They occur when particles ejected from the sun (which can happen in various ways) reach Earth and interact with our magnetic field. Scientists want to better predict these storms not because they want to give you a heads-up about the northern lights, but because strong ones can be disruptive to our way of life, such as causing power outages like the one that occurred in Quebec in 1989.

READ MORE: How solar storms could leave us in the dark

The paper’s authors note the contributions that ordinary citizens — like you — can make to science.

“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 in the United Kingdom. “The team is very thankful for our community’s dedication and are excited to have more people sign up.”

© 2016 Shaw Media

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