Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@rebeccanotbecky) may have noticed that I get excited when the “northern lights,” also known as the aurora, are visible. Before I moved to northern tip of Wisconsin I’d only seen the phenomenon once in my entire life, one memorable night when I was a kid and the geomagnetic activity was so strong it was visible down in Ohio. Being able to see the aurora is still really novel and amazing to me, and I love that I’ve moved north just as the sun is entering an active phase and spewing out all the stuff that causes it to flare up.
Anyway, last night was particularly gorgeous – I sat by myself on the end of the dock, looking north across the pond to where green bands of light were slowly moving across the sky above a stand of pine trees. Spring peepers called all around me and Barred and Great Horned Owls hooted from the woods. It was one of those moments where I couldn’t believe that this is really my life, that I am this lucky, that I have this right outside my door. (Eventually I’m going to have to live in a town or a suburb like a normal person, and it will be a hard adjustment.)
Imagine how happy I was this evening, then, to discover a project that combines aurora-watching with two of my favorite things – citizen science and social media. A few people have put together a map of aurora visibility that is updated in real time as people report their sightings via Twitter. All you have to do is fire out a tweet in the following format: #aurora (your postal code) (rating out of 10 on visibility where you are) (any comment you want to add). For example, last night I would have tweeted #aurora 54487 8/10 gorgeous view over the pond! It works for Canadian, UK, and South African postal codes as well as American – check out the link for details, including some guidelines for assigning marks out of ten. You can contribute even if you can’t see the aurora – if there’s activity going on but you can’t see it from your location, just report 0/10. Negative data is still data.