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Auroras have a surprising link to electricity consumption

Finnish researchers have explored a captivating idea. Could the stunning Northern Lights (auroras) reveal more than just beauty? Could they hold clues about how much electricity we use?

The investigation, led by the University of Oulu, has uncovered a surprising link between auroras and winter temperatures. 

This unique study investigates how activity in Earth’s atmosphere, which generates auroras, affects the amount of electricity Finland uses during winter. 

Studying space weather

The researchers analyzed information about air pressure, wind patterns, and surface temperatures from Europe’s weather center (ECMWF) for the period 1950-2021.

Later, the team analyzed the amount of electricity Finland used each month between 1990 and 2021, and estimated values for earlier years based on temperature data.

“From these data, we had to carefully remove variations unrelated to temperatures. This then revealed the influence of particle precipitation on temperature and electricity consumption,” said Veera Juntunen, a doctoral researcher at the University of Oulu.

Initially, the researchers focused on space weather. While Earth has its own weather, space experiences its own set of dynamic events. Just like on Earth, these events aren’t random – they’re largely driven by the Sun’s activity.

For example, when the Sun experiences intense activity, it can emit a surge of energetic particles in space. These may collide with satellites and affect our internet connections.

The phenomenon is known as energetic particle precipitation (EPP) and it plays a role in the creation of auroras too.

Auroras and electricity: A cosmic connection

Auroras happen when charged particles from the Sun (carried by the solar wind) collide with gases in Earth’s atmosphere and react with its magnetic field. These collisions release energy as light, creating the beautiful displays.

For a long time, we knew this activity could create beautiful auroras, but this study found something new: it can also warm up Finland’s winters. This happens because the charged particles interact with our atmosphere in multiple ways.

Warmer winters mean less need for heating, which means lower energy use in Finland. So, the sun throwing its particles, creating auroras, can actually affect how much electricity people use on Earth.

The study explains that EPP can intensify the polar vortex, which is a strong wind pattern that typically circulates around the polar region 

When the wind blows from the east, these warm patches from the sun have an even bigger effect on Finland, making its winters much warmer. 

That’s why scientists concluded – it depends on a specific wind pattern we didn’t know about before. So, space weather and wind work together to influence how warm (and how much electricity Finland needs) in winter.

Harsh weather conditions

The researchers found that the polar vortex “broke” once already this winter. This “breaking” means the cold air spread out in unexpected ways, potentially impacting weather patterns. 

The experts predict this will happen again soon, this weekend specifically. It’s impressive that their models even hinted at this possibility months ago.

Breaking of the polar vortex can lead to colder temperatures in areas like Europe and North America. This happens because the weakening allows cold Arctic air to escape southward. 

Such weakening is often linked to cold spells and harsh winter weather in these regions.

The researchers found several critical links. The way the Sun interacts with Earth’s atmosphere, especially how it sends energetic particles down, can directly affect how much electricity we use in winter.

For Finland, this “space weather” can explain about 14% of how much electricity they use – that’s pretty significant.

By understanding how space weather affects winter weather, scientists can potentially predict how much electricity we’ll need ahead of time. This could help energy companies prepare and make sure everyone has enough power during cold months.

“The results demonstrate a previously unrecognized societal influence of space weather, and imply that long-term energy consumption forecasts could potentially be improved by considering long-term space weather predictions,” wrote the study authors.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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