The aurora on Jupiter, powered by Jovian Birkeland currents[1]

A Birkeland current is a specific magnetic field aligned current in the Earth’s magnetosphere which flows from the magnetotail towards the Earth on the dawn side and in the other direction on the dusk side of the magnetosphere. Lately, the term Birkeland currents has been expanded by some authors to include magnetic field aligned currents in general space plasmas. In the Earth’s magnetosphere, these currents are driven by changes in the topology of the magnetotail (e.g. during substorms) and when they reach the upper atmosphere, they create the aurora Borealis and Australis. The currents are closed through the auroral electrojet, which flows perpendicular to the local magnetic field in the ionosphere.

The currents were predicted in 1903 by Norwegian explorer and physicist Kristian Birkeland, who undertook expeditions into the Arctic Circle to study the aurora. He discovered, using simple magnetic field measure instruments, that when the aurora appeared the needles of the magnetometers changed direction. This could only imply that currents were flowing in the atmosphere above. He theorized that somehow the Sun was a cathode ray

See also: Error: Template must be given at least one article name, and corpuscules from a solar wind entered the Earth’s magnetic field and created currents, thereby creating the aurora. This view was scorned at by other researchers
See also: Error: Template must be given at least one article name, and it took until the 1960s before sounding rockets, launched into the auroral region showed that indeed the currents posited by Birkeland existed. In honour of his ideas, these currents were named Birkeland currents. A good description of the discoveries by Birkeland is given in the book Northern Lights by Lucy Jago.

Professor Emeritus of the Alfvén Laboratory in Sweden, Carl-Gunne Fälthammar wrote (1986): "A reason why Birkeland currents are particularly interesting is that, in the plasma forced to carry them, they cause a number of plasma physical processes to occur (waves, instabilities, fine structure formation). These in turn lead to consequences such as acceleration of charged particles, both positive and negative, and element separation (such as preferential ejection of oxygen ions). Both of these classes of phenomena should have a general astrophysical interest far beyond that of understanding the space environment of our own Earth."

Auroral-like Birkeland currents created by scientist Kristian Birkeland in his terrella, featuring a magnetised anode globe in an evacuated chamber.

Characteristics[edit | edit source]

Auroral Birkeland currents can carry about 1 million amperes.[2] They can heat up the upper atmosphere which results in increased drag on low-altitude satellites.

Birkeland currents can also be created in the laboratory with multi-terawatt pulsed power generators. The resulting cross-section pattern indicates a hollow beam of electron in the form of a circle of vortices, a formation called the diocotron instability[3] (similar, but different from the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability), that subsequently leads to filamentation. Such vortices can be seen in aurora as "auroral curls".[4]

Birkeland currents are also one of a class of plasma phenonena called a z-pinch, so named because the azimuthal magnetic fields produced by the current pinches the current into a filamentary cable. This can also twist, producing a helical pinch that spirals like a twisted or braided rope, and this most closely corresponds to a Birkeland current. Pairs of parallel Birkeland currents can also interact; parallel Birkeland currents moving in the same direction will attract with an electromagnetic force inversely proportional to their distance apart (Note that the electromagnetic force between the individual particles is inversely proportional to the square of the distance, just like the gravitational force); parallel Birkeland currents moving in opposite directions will repel with an electromagnetic force inversely proportional to their distance apart. There is also a short-range circular component to the force between two Birkeland currents that is opposite to the longer-range parallel forces.[5]

Electrons moving along a Birkeland current may be accelerated by a plasma double layer. If the resulting electrons approach relativistic velocities (ie. the speed of light) they may subsequently produce a Bennett pinch, which in a magnetic field will spiral and emit synchrotron radiation that includes radio, optical (ie. light), x-rays, and gamma rays.

Cosmic Birkeland currents[edit | edit source]

Plasma physicists suggest that many structures in the universe exhibiting filamentation are due to Birkeland currents. Peratt (1992) notes that "Regardless of scale, the motion of charged particles produces a self-magnetic field that can act on other collections of charged particles, internally or externally. Plasmas in relative motion are coupled via currents that they drive through each other". (See Plasma scaling). Examples include:

Size Current Description
20 × 103 m Venus Flux ropes
Cometary tails
102–105 m 106 A Earth's Aurora
108 m 105–106 A Magnetosphere inverted V events
107–108 m 1011 A Sun's prominences (spicules, coronal streamers)
Interstellar structures: various nebulae
1018 m Galactic center
6 × 1020 m Double radio galaxies: bright lobes

Source: Peratt (1992).

History[edit | edit source]


Kristian Birkeland predicted auroral electrojets in 1908. He wrote: "[p.95 ..] the currents there are imagined as having come into existence mainly as a secondary effect of the electric corpuscles from the sun drawn in out of space, and thus far come under the second of the possibilities mentioned above. [p.105 ..] Fig. 50a represents those in which the current-directions at the storm-centre are directed westwards, and 50b those in which the currents move eastwards."

The history of Birekland Currents appears to be mired in politics.[6]

After Kristian Birkeland suggested "currents there are imagined as having come into existence mainly as a secondary effect of the electric corpuscles from the sun drawn in out of space," (1908), his ideas were generally ignored in favour of an alternative theory from British mathematician Sydney Chapman.

In 1939, the Swedish Engineer and plasma physicist Hannes Alfvén promoted Birkeland's ideas in a paper published on the generation of the current from the Solar Wind. One of Alfvén's colleagues, Rolf Boström, also used field-aligned currents in a new model of auroral electrojets (1964).

In 1966 Alfred Zmuda, J.H. Martin, and F.T.Heuring reported their findings of magnetic disturbance in the aurora, using a satellite magnetometer, but did not mention Alfvén, Birkeland, or field-aligned currents, even after it was brought to their attention by editor of the space physics section of the journal, Alex Dressler.

In 1967 Alex Dessler and one of his graduates students, David Cummings, wrote an article arguing that Zmuda et al had indeed detected field align-currents. Even Alfvén subsequently credited (1986) that Dessler "discovered the currents that Birkeland had predicted" and should be called Birkeland-Dessler currents.

In 1969 Milo Schield, Alex Dessler and John Freeman, used the name "Birkeland currents" for the first time. In 1970, Zmuda, Armstrong and Heuring wrote another paper agreeing that their observations were compatible with field-aligned currents as suggested by Cummings and Dessler, and by Bostrom, but again made no mention of Alfvén and Birkeland.


Image credit: Jonathan Eastwood / NASA. Original caption: Flux Ropes Power the Magnetosphere! THEMIS discovered a flux rope pumping a 650,000 Amp current into the Arctic.

In 1970, a group from Rice University also suggested that the results of an earlier rocket experiment was consistent with field-aligned currents, and credited the idea to Boström, and Dessler and his colleagues, rather than Alfvén and Birkeland. In the same year, Zmudu and Amstrong did credit Alfvén and Birkeland, but felt that they "...cannot definitely identify the particles constituting the field-aligned currents."

It wasn't until 1973 that the navy satellite Triad, carrying equipment from Zmuda and James Armstrong, detected the magnetic signatures of two large sheets of electric current.[7] [8] Their papers (1973, 1974) reported "more conclusive evidence" of field-aligned currents, citing Cummings and Dessler but not mentioning Birkeland or Alfven.

It had taken 65 years to confirm Birkeland's original predictions.

In 2007, NASA's THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) project "found evidence of magnetic ropes connecting Earth's upper atmosphere directly to the sun," [9] [10] noting "that solar wind particles flow in along these ropes, providing energy for geomagnetic storms and auroras," thus reconfirming Birkeland's model of solar-terrestrial electrical interaction. NASA also likened the interaction to a "30 kiloVolt battery in space," noting the "flux rope pumps 650,000 Amp current into the Arctic!"[11]

References[edit | edit source]

File:Magnetic rope.png

The complex self-constricting magnetic field lines and current paths in a Birkeland current that may develop in a plasma[12]

  • Alfvén, Hannes (1939), Theory of Magnetic Storms and of the Aurorae, K. Sven. Vetenskapsakad. Handl., ser. 3, vol. 18, no. 3, p. 1, 1939. Reprinted in part, with comments by A. J. Dessler and J. Wilcox, in Eos, Trans. Am. Geophys. Un., vol. 51, p. 180, 1970.
  • Alfvén, Hannes, "Double layers and circuits in astrophysics," IEEE Trans. Plasma Sci., vol. 14, p. 779, 1986 (on p. 787).
  • Armstrong J. C.; Zmuda, A. J.; "Field-aligned current at 1100km in the auroral region measured by satellite," J. Geophys. Res., vol. 75, p. 7122, 1970.
  • Armstrong J. C.; Zmuda, A. J.; "Triaxial magnetic measurements of field-aligned currents at 800 kilometers in the auroral region: Initial results," J. Geophys. Res., vol. 78, p. 6802, 1973; Zmuda A. J.; Armstrong J. C.; "The diurnal flow pattern of field-aligned currents," J. Geophys. Res., vol. 79, p. 4611, 1974.
  • Birkeland, Kristian (1908), The Norwegian Aurora Polaris Expedition 1902-1903
  • Bostrom, R., "A model of the auroral electrojets," J. Geophys. Res., vol. 69, p. 4983, 1964.
  • Cummings, W. D.; Dessler, A. J.; "Field-aligned currents in the magnetosphere," J. Geophys. Res., vol. 72, p. 1007, 1967.
  • Peratt, Anthony (1992), Physics of the Plasma Universe, "Birkeland Currents in Cosmic Plasma" (p.43-92)
  • Rostoker, G.; Armstrong, J. C.; Zmuda, A. J. (1975), "Field-aligned current flow associated with intrusion of the substorm-intensified westward electrojet into the evening sector", Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 80, Sept. 1, 1975, p. 3571-3579
  • Schield, M. A.; Freeman, J. W.; Dessler, A. J., (1969) "A Source for Field-Aligned Currents at Auroral Latitudes", Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 74, p.247
  • Zmuda, A. J.; Martin, J. H.; Heuring, F. T. "Transverse magnetic disturbances at 1100 kilometers in the auroral region," J . Geophys. Res., vol. 71, p. 5033, 1966.
  • Zmuda, A. J.; Armstrong, J. C.; Heuring, F. T. "Characteristics of transverse magnetic disturbances observed at 1100 km in the auroral oval", J. Geophys. Res., vol. 75, p. 4757, 1970.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

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See also[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

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