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Earth, Water & Energy- Nov 16, 2015

Modelling the Dance of The Spirits at the FMI

Northern lights are of the most beautiful phenomena taking place on our planet. The colourful, awestriking phenomena highly involve physics, occurring when high energy particles from the sun hit earth’s magnetic atmosphere. With today’s technology, we can forecast space weather and even model the activity of the sun. This work, among others, is being done in the Finnish Meteorology Institute (FMI).

Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Alaska. Image: Public Domain.

Tracking the aurora is one of the FMI’s Space Physics Applications research group’s many interests. Beginner aurora hunters can access their new website, AuroraNow, in which live forecasts of northern lights for various locations are updated.
But the space physics application research group does much more than that. We invited meteorology student and researcher Juho Iipponen to tell us more about his research.

Iipponen, 21, is a third-year meteorology student at the University of Helsinki and a part-time researcher at FMI. Besides his studies on dynamic meteorology, he spends a great deal of time doing fascinating research on upper atmosphere dynamics. He began working for the institute after finishing his first year at the university.

Juho Iipponen
Juho Iipponen. Image: Vilma Kangasaho

Working for the space physics applications research group, he conducts theoretical modelling of the near-space environment by data analysis. Specifically, Iipponen is working on modelling and analysing thermospheric mass density changes during geomagnetic disturbances and storms: During magnetic storms caused by the sun’s activity, the density of the thermosphere, a part of our atmosphere as high as 500 km, changes.

These changes are important to understand when sending humans and probes into space. Changes in the magnetic fields may induce strong currents in electric power transmissions and oil pipes, therefore risking equipment – and possibly the lives of astronauts dependent on this equipment. Companies are also interested in the research done by the group, because the induced currents may cause a hazardous effects to their systems. The space physics application research group at FMI is one of the world leaders in applying numerical simulations to the research of space weather.

Their research is performed using available data and physical models, but also through empirical research. Iipponen’s research field expanded greatly in the 21st century when vast amounts of new data became available thanks to the ESA’s and NASA’s gravitational satellites, which, in addition to measuring the earth’s gravitational field, also provide high-accurate thermospheric wind and density measurements.

Artist's Conception of Gravity Probe B
Artist’s Conception of Gravity Probe B. Image: NASA/MSFC

The upper atmospheric density affects satellite orbits, and based on the measurements of those changes, the upper atmospheric density can be calculated. The methods used by the FMI are unique because they are based on the usage of a geomagnetic index, which no other research group has applied before. With their new technique, the density changes can be forecasted more precisely than ever before. The highlight of Iipponen’s research so far has been publishing the results of his hard work on this subject in a peer-reviewed scientific journal 1.

From a young age Iipponen wanted to become an astronomer, but later on that dream was replaced with another one. Realising the importance of climate and climate change to our planet, the decision to change the course of his life was easy to make: “I realised that the problems we face in our everyday lives are not any less fascinating than the problems in cosmology and astronomy”, Iipponen said. Elaborating on his role his research takes in society, he added: “The increasingly non-eco-friendly society we live in right now calls for experts in a wide range of earth sciences – not least the ones in meteorology and climate science”.

Juho wishes to dedicate his future to this task, also considering moving abroad to continue with his research. Making climate models his career is one of his dreams.
His advice to our redears is simple, yet important: never underestimate your skills. He recommends looking for summer- and part-time jobs as early as possible during your studies. “The experience you get there is invaluable and highly respected later on. It gives you a unique peek into the world of science”, he said.

[1]: Iipponen, J., and T. Laitinen (2015), A method to predict thermospheric mass density response to geomagnetic disturbances using time-integrated auroral electrojet index J. Geophys. Res. Space Physics, 120, 5746–5757, doi: 10.1002/2015JA021093

Vilma Kangasaho Vilma Kangasaho is a Millennium Youth Camp Alumni studying meteorology at the University of Helsinki. She is interested in climate change and enjoys sports.