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Canadian Scientist Wins Prestigious Award for Northern Lights Research

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A Saskatchewan scientist says it’s “hard to believe” her research on the Northern Lights has been recognized with an honorary fellowship from the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).

“I looked at the list of other people who got this award, and there are giants in my field of research on that list,” said Kathryn McWilliams, a professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s physics department.

“It’s amazing – it’s also very humbling,” she said. The stream Matt Galloway.

McWilliams is director of SuperDARN Canada, the Canadian branch of the Dual Auroral Radar Network. The organization has radar sites in 10 countries, studying the effect of space weather on the Earth’s atmosphere.

She first became involved with the organization in 1992 as a summer student, when she helped build the radar towers and some of the electronics at its first site, east of Saskatoon. Since then, she has been studying the aurora borealis.

WATCH | What causes the Northern Lights?

What are the Northern Lights?

We all know the Northern Lights are a spectacular sight above our heads. But do you really know what causes them? CBC explains. 4:13

Last month, the RAS awarded McWilliams one of four honorary fellowships, describing her as “a leading international expert on the dynamics of field-aligned currents that connect the solar wind, magnetosphere and ionosphere.”

She joins the ranks of other researchers who over the years have received the honor of the RAS, a bicentennial society dedicated to the study of astronomy and geophysics. The fellowship does not provide McWilliams with any additional funding for his work, but is considered recognition of his research.

McWilliams hopes that through his research, scientists will one day be able to accurately predict when and where the Northern Lights will occur, like weather.

This work could also warn us of some of the most damaging effects of related phenomena, such as solar storms.

“It’s a really big question, in the sense that our lab extends from the sun to the surface of the Earth,” she said.

How do the Northern Lights occur?

The aurora borealis occurs when a solar wind of electrons and protons is expelled from the sun and collides with the earth’s magnetic field.

Some of these particles are sent back into space, but others are trapped and directed towards the magnetic poles of the Earth.

McWilliams compared what happens next to “filling a water balloon”.

“At some point, there’s too much energy in the earth’s magnetic field and it has to dump it into the atmosphere, like the balloon will burst if it gets too full,” she said.

She added that although we have some understanding of the process, there are still gaps in our knowledge.

“I couldn’t tell you, you know, in two weeks, at 8:27 p.m., there will be auroras in this place and in this place,” she said.

McWilliams works with teams around the world to fill this knowledge gap. They use instruments both here on Earth and in orbit in space to map the upper atmosphere and study how it interacts with conditions in space.

Space storms can damage Earth technology

Predicting this activity isn’t just about helping people who want to catch a glimpse of a spectacular Northern Lights show, McWilliams said.

“There are a lot of technologies that we rely on in our daily lives that are negatively impacted by space weather storms,” she said.

Turbulence in the upper atmosphere can disrupt communications technologies and navigation systems, such as GPS, which rely on signals bouncing between the ground and orbiting satellites.

In the not-too-distant future, autonomous vehicles could also rely on these signals, she said – and an unexpected disruption could see vehicles veer off course.

It’s not just futuristic technology that’s affected by solar storms: Quebec lost power for half a day to one such storm in 1989.

The Northern Lights above the SuperDARN radar site outside Saskatoon. (Submitted by Kathryn McWilliams)

McWilliams has watched the Northern Lights since she was a child, spotting the occasions when the lights were visible above her family’s farm outside of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

“[There’s] a long history and a lot of traditional knowledge around them, and so, they are so inspiring,” she said.

Now that she lives in the city, she doesn’t go out into dark areas too often to see the lights, but she finds another sense of wonder in her own work.

“That’s basically what scientific research is all about: trying to ask a question or have a thought that no one has ever had or thought of before,” she said.

“It’s a really deep feeling when you look at your data and something pops up and you just think, ‘Oh, this is new.'”


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Meli Gumus.