An old cabin outfitted with a camera and a radio became UAF’s first auroral research station in 1930. Professor Veryl Fuller’s work in the dark wilderness outside that cabin, located off the Richardson Highway several miles southeast of Fairbanks, set the tone for auroral research into the 21st century.
Government officials interested in the aurora’s disruption of radio communications arranged a $10,000 grant to Fuller so he could determine the height of the ionosphere. That’s the region of the Earth’s atmosphere where certain long-range radio waves propagate — and where the aurora appears.
At the cabin and a second location on campus, Fuller and his students used their radios to coordinate the simultaneous capture of night sky pictures. They then used the difference in the images to triangulate the aurora’s height.
The year Fuller established the auroral research station, Syun-Ichi Akasofu ’61 was born more than 3,000 miles away in Saku, a city west of Tokyo in central Japan. Akasofu’s introduction to the aurora was through one of his mother’s favorite songs, called “A Wanderer’s Song,” which includes a line about the aurora.
“She used to sing it like a lullaby,” Akasofu recalled.
Fuller died in 1935, leaving his work to be finished by Professor Ervin Bramhall. In 1937, their findings were published in “Auroral Research at the University of Alaska.”
The years following were a difficult time for research at UAF, as many faculty and students left to serve in World War II. However, in 1946, an act of Congress established the Geophysical Institute, still the home of UAF’s auroral research.
Back in Japan, after starting college in 1949, Akasofu got a job at a magnetic observatory, partially to fund his mountaineering excursions. He maintained the instrument that records changes in Earth’s magnetic field. He noticed the instrument constantly changing.
“I asked the manager of the observatory what was causing those changes. He said, it must be aurora in Siberia or Alaska,’” Akasofu said. “That was the second time that I heard about the aurora.”
The experience sparked Akasofu’s interest. While a college student in Japan, he attended a geophysics conference. “I must have asked some question to the lecturer. He said, ‘Have you read the Chapman-Ferraro paper?’”
I got a letter from then-president of the university, William Wood, giving me tenure. I did not know what it meant.”
The lecturer was referring to a paper written by Sydney Chapman ’58 (Hon.), an Oxford University professor, mathematician and geophysicist who soon became instrumental in the Geophysical Institute’s success. At a time when Alaska was not yet a state and the Fairbanks population was just over 5,000, as a visiting professor Chapman would bring much-needed star power to the University of Alaska.
Akasofu sought out Chapman’s paper but found it so dense that he “decided perhaps the aurora was too difficult to study,” he recalled.
Nevertheless, Akasofu set out to understand the article and resolved to write to Chapman with some questions.
“I learned that [Chapman] was an Oxford professor, the top guy in geophysics. I hesitated to write to him,” Akasofu said. “So I left it. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was climbing mountains, mostly.”
Akasofu learned that Chapman, after recently retiring from Oxford, had begun to spend three months at the Geophysical Institute every year. Eventually Akasofu worked up the nerve to write Chapman with about 10 questions.
“I never expected he would respond, being a top guy in the field,” Akasofu said. “But, surprisingly, I got a reply. Some of the questions he could not answer.”
In his reply, Chapman suggested that Akasofu come to Alaska to study under him. “The GI sent me money for the airfare, so I had no choice,” Akasofu said, laughing.
Cameras and rockets
Working closely with Chapman, Akasofu finished his Ph.D. in 1961. (He also took a few breaks for mountain climbing, including an ascent of Mount Silvertip.) After graduating, Akasofu continued his research at the GI and focused on a new technology — the “all-sky” camera.
With these cameras, researchers could “take a picture of the whole sky at many, many locations,” Akasofu said. “It was the first time in history that we could study the aurora over the entire polar region at the same time, almost like looking down by satellite.”
Using the data, Akasofu began studying explosive auroral activity, a phenomenon he would describe in his 1964 paper, “The Development of the Auroral Substorm.” It became the foundation for future research.
Soon after the publication of this pivotal paper, Akasofu was promoted to professor at the university.
“I got a letter from then-president of the university, William Wood, giving me tenure. I did not know what it meant,” said Akasofu. “Perhaps a couple months after, I got a phone call from the president, saying ‘I gave you tenure. Why didn’t you respond?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know what it was.’”
The years after Akasofu became a professor were marked by growth at UAF. To host rockets designed to penetrate and study the aurora, it built Poker Flat Research Range, the first and only university-owned rocket range in the world. The first launch came in 1969 after a rushed initial construction led by Neil Davis ’55, ’61, the Geophysical Institute’s assistant director. [See a profile of Davis.] The facility was completed in 1972.
In 1986, Akasofu became director of the Geophysical Institute, a job that required him to focus more broadly on geophysics.
The digital revolution
The next year, Don Hampton ’90, ’96 began his graduate work on the aurora, after having been drawn to UAF by Alaska’s wilderness.
“What we had been doing back in the 1980s and 1990s was trying to understand the details of what was causing the light that we observed,” said Hampton.
By the time Hampton returned to UAF to take a position as a research faculty member in 2006, many of those details were understood and new technology had greatly propelled auroral research. Though with more sophisticated technology than in Fuller’s days, cameras still provide a wealth of data for studying auroral processes. Researchers are benefiting from technology that has caught up with theory, said Hampton, now a GI assistant professor.
“The thing that’s really changed is that we’ve got an embarrassment of riches in digital technology now. So, I can buy a fairly cheap camera that is even better than we had back then, and it’s all digital,” Hampton said. “That’s really opened up the possibilities in doing auroral research.”
Digital images are cheaper and faster to obtain, so far more can be analyzed, he explained.
Akasofu left his position as GI director in 1999 to found the International Arctic Research Center, which focuses on climate change. He retired in 2007, though he continues to give talks and publish.
Akasofu, now 86, declined to say where he thinks aurora research should go from here.
“It’s about time I should let the young people do it,” he said. “I shouldn’t say too much of what they should do.”
Akasofu did share one idea — use auroras on other planets as a clue to extraterrestrial life.
“One way to look for Earth-like life is to look at the auroral light. Earth’s aurora, the most intense light comes from oxygen atoms,” he said. “That oxygen is supplied by plants. So if we could detect oxygen light in the extraterrestrial planet, I think there is a very good chance that Earth-like life exists there.”
Today, UAF’s unique location in the auroral zone draws a new generation of space physicists.
“I always wanted to see the aurora, because I had never seen it, even though I am from Siberia,” said Victoriya Forsythe, a Ph.D. student in space physics who focuses on radar aurora, a type not visible to the human eye.
Graduate students researching the aurora today have found their experiences at UAF challenging but rewarding, just as Akasofu did 60 years ago.
“When you first started working in your field, and you go to conferences, you have no idea what anyone is talking about. You just grin,” said Jason Ahrns, a space physics Ph.D. student. “Then [as you continue your studies] you feel like you become a specialist. Suddenly you get into a conversation, and you actually know more than the other person.”
Opportunities extend beyond Fairbanks; Ahrns has traveled to remote parts of Alaska and Norway while working with aurora-capturing cameras. Forsythe employs radars in Antarctica, part of a research effort involving nine countries.
“I feel like part of an international network,” Forsythe said.
Studying energy’s impact
Many current auroral researchers focus on the energy that creates the aurora. With the world’s increasing reliance on satellites and other technology, mitigating the effects of that energy has become increasingly important.
“Tens of gigawatts of power are being dumped [into the Earth’s upper atmosphere], even during a moderate solar storm. That’s a lot of power,” said Hampton. “So one thing we are interested in is when we get a large aurora, a major storm, how is that going to affect our communications?”
A storm like 1859’s Carrington event, during which auroras could be seen even in equatorial regions, could have an immense impact today.
“I feel like part of an international network.”
“If something like [the Carrington event] happened nowadays that would significantly destroy our normal life,” Forsythe said. “Researchers Homeier and Wei recently calculated that … the U.S. would have a couple trillion dollars in damage. Knowing when it will happen, lots of things can be done to mitigate it.”
Auroral research at UAF has become multifaceted. In 2015, the GI acquired the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program facility, a vast antenna array near Gakona used for ionospheric research. Scientists also study the aurora using radars, rockets and networks of all-sky cameras.
The field has come a long way, not only in the types of research but also in the types of researchers, Forsythe said.
“Our field is very much alive, very dynamic; we have a much larger diversity in our field,” Forsythe said. “Gender-wise, I think it’s much better.”
While researchers have made enormous strides since Fuller first set out to that isolated cabin, Forsythe said, many aspects of the aurora remain unexplained.