Satellite measurements unveil aurora linked to carbon dioxide

Study finds emissions occurring in Earth’s atmosphere, spotting infrared signals from carbon dioxide during an aurora similar to northern lights
Shubhangi Dua
Auroras associated with carbon dioxide captured similar to northern lights
Auroras associated with carbon dioxide captured similar to northern lights.

Pom669 / iStock 

While the notion of northern lights continues to remain a fascination for people, auroras linked to carbon dioxide are the first of their kind to be observed globally. 

Northern lights in the night sky are usually made up of two primary gasses nitrogen and oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, according to Royal Museums Greenwich.

With the observation of aurora associated with carbon dioxide, the traditional understanding of the science behind auroras has been altered. 

By understanding the physical processes involved in auroras, the study aimed to better understand the interactions between energetic particles and the Earth’s atmosphere.

Analyzing dataset

Scientists acquired data from NASA's Aqua satellite that launched in 2002. The information analyzed spanned over 20 years providing a long-term dataset for future research and studies. 

They used the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument, which gathers infrared energy emitted from Earth's surface and atmosphere globally. 

Satellite measurements unveil aurora linked to carbon dioxide
Auroral signatures observed from the CO2 4.3 micrometer emission from space during the October 13–14, 2016, geomagnetic storm.

The study notes that the AIRS instrument noticed a carbon dioxide infrared emission at 4.26 microns associated with the aurora. 

These annotations were confirmed by the simultaneous sounding of the atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry measurements and the SuperMAG Electrojet index, the study states. 

Arizona State University (ASU) says, “The instrument’s data provides 3D temperature and water vapor measurements through the atmospheric column and a host of trace gasses, surface and cloud properties onboard NASA's Aqua satellite.”

Recurring Carbon dioxide

The study’s dataset and analysis method offered the first daily global observations of carbon dioxide auroral emissions using a nadir-viewing satellite instrument, ASU said.

Additionally, ASU explains that, while aurora formations may be commonly observed in the Earth’s atmosphere, those linked to carbon dioxide are rare and exist in small quantities. 

It happens when energetic particles interact with various atoms and molecules in the atmosphere and one of those molecules is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas impacting the troposphere. 

Carbon dioxide molecules also exist in small quantities in the Earth's atmosphere at the edge of space.

Katrina Bossert, assistant professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences says, "this offers a new way to observe Earth's aurora from space. Different auroral emissions can be associated with different altitudes and particle energy.”

“Carbon dioxide auroral emissions occur in the region we consider the edge of space, a little lower in altitude than where satellites typically orbit. The observations may yield insight into physical processes associated with the aurora," said Bossert. 

The study was published by Geophysical Research Letters on 8 June, find the study here.


The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument onboard the NASA Aqua satellite is used to observe aurora associated with the CO2 4.26 μm emission. These observations are due to non-local thermodynamic equilibrium (NLTE) resulting from the vibrational excitation of CO2, which arises in the process of auroral energetic particle precipitation, as opposed to the dayside NLTE occurring due to solar radiation. The observations are confirmed to be associated with aurora using the Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry (SABER) limb measurements and the SuperMAG Electrojet (SME) index. The high spectral resolution and low noise associated with the AIRS instrument allows for the emission spectrum to be calculated and confirmed to arise from CO2. Our new NLTE index values derived from AIRS provide the ability to globally measure auroral events associated with CO2 with a spatial resolution on the order of ∼13.5 km.

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