(Red aurora in Ursa Major, 31 March 2001, Central Illinois, USA)
As of January 2014, the Aurora Alarm is no longer operating. The detector still works, but the telemetry system required to get the data off the mountain was increasingly unreliable and time-consuming to maintain. At the same time, the current solar cycle (number 24), coming after an unusually long and deep minimum, has failed to produce anything like the level of activity we have grown accustomed to over the past century. As a consequence, geomagnetic activity is at historically low levels and the aurora is rarely visible from middle- and low-latitude sites, even now at solar max. No one can predict the next cycle (peaking in 2024?) with much confidence; however, a view is starting to gain support, that we could be entering a long-term "grand minimum" akin to the Maunder or Dalton minima of ages past. If you have not seen the aurora yet, I strongly recommend a trip to the arctic (or antarctic), and soon!
(Previous introduction, for posterity)
Most of us associate the aurora borealis/australis (northern and southern lights) with cold, high-latitude areas where relatively few people live. However, the aurora can often be seen in temperate regions as well. Almost anyone living north of 30° N or south of 30° S latitude has a good chance to see this most beautiful of natural wonders at least once a decade. The challenge in our modern era is knowing when to look: Prior to the twentieth century, such a dramatic happening in the sky was hard to miss, but today, artificial light pollution around our cities has erased the night sky for much of Earth's population. Travel into the country is usually required to see the comparatively faint light of the aurora, so we need to be alerted quickly and reliably when a display becomes visible.
The Aurora Alarm provides this service free of charge to nearly 1,000 users. The only system of its kind in the world, it uses data from a detector site in eastern Washington to alert users in real time when the aurora appears in the sky. (A second detector site, in central Illinois, was retired in August 2003.) During the active years of solar cycle 23 (c. 1998-2004), the Aurora Alarm successfully alerted skywatchers in the U.S. to almost 40 displays of the northern lights. As cycle 24 gathers momentum, the Aurora Alarm will be watching once again.
Location and networking support are provided by Walla Walla University (Northwest site). The support of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign is also acknowledged for the 1999-2003 run of the Midwest detector site. The key optical components were donated by Hamamatsu Corporation, Andover Corporation, and Omega Optical, Inc..
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