Frequency of Occurrence

The aurora is a common occurrence in the ring-shaped zone. It is occasionally seen in temperate latitudes, when a strong magnetic storm temporarily expands the auroral oval. Large magnetic storms are most common during the peak of the eleven-year sunspot cycle or during the three years after that peak. However, within the auroral zone the likelihood of an aurora occurring depends mostly on the slant of IMF lines (known as Bz, pronounced "bee-sub-zed" or "bee-sub-zee"), being greater with southward slants.

Geomagnetic storms that ignite auroras actually happen more often during the months around the equinoxes. It is not well understood why geomagnetic storms are tied to the earth's seasons when polar activity is not. It is known, however, that during spring and autumn, the earth's and the interplanetary magnetic field link up. At the magnetopause, Earth's magnetic field points north. When Bz becomes large and negative (i.e., the IMF tilts south), it can partially cancel Earth's magnetic field at the point of contact. South-pointing Bz's open a door through which energy from the solar wind can reach Earth's inner magnetosphere.

The peaking of Bz during this time is a result of geometry. The interplanetary magnetic field comes from the sun and is carried outward the solar wind. Because the sun rotates the IMF has a spiral shape. Earth's magnetic dipole axis is most closely aligned with the Parker spiral in April and October. As a result, southward (and northward) excursions of Bz are greatest then.

However, Bz is not the only influence on geomagnetic activity. The Sun's rotation axis is tilted 8 degrees with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit. Because the solar wind blows more rapidly from the sun's poles than from its equator, the average speed of particles buffeting Earth's magnetosphere waxes and wanes every six months. The solar wind speed is greatest -- by about 50 km/s, on average -- around September 5 and March 5 when Earth lies at its highest heliographic latitude.

Still, neither Bz nor the solar wind can fully explain the seasonal behaviour of geomagnetic storms. Those factors together contribute only about one-third of the observed semi-annual variation


Creative Commons License
Aurora by Menal Salim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at