Laura Learns Aurora: Kp Index

Laura here! I am an aurora enthusiast, but new to the science side. Fortunately, the Aurorasaurus blog and website are full of great resources that I’ll be sharing out as I cultivate my knowledge.

You’re bundled up in warmth and ready to aurora-watch, and you hear the Kp index is 6. Is that a good thing? What does it mean, exactly? Find out in this post by former intern Sean McCloat, reposted and updated below.

Then, check on the current Kp index and explore others with the adorable and informative Kp Fox, created by Aurorasaurus Ambassador Jeremy Kuzub.

A fox and kit look up to a swirling animated aurora set to Kp6. Text at the top reads: "Kp Fox lives in Northern Canada, and can see them most nights. Jealous!"

Screenshot of KpFox by Jeremy Kuzub, Jufa InterMedia

In this final part of our special blog series, we will explain the origins of one of more common measurements of geomagnetic activity, the Kp index, and compare it to the solar wind power that we talk about previously.

The aurora is the most visible indicator that the solar wind or an incoming CME has caused a geomagnetic disturbance. Processes in space actually cause measurable wiggles in the whole magnetic field of Earth and can be measured on the ground.  These wiggles are measured with sensitive instruments called magnetometers in units called “nano Teslas”, or nT. For over 170 years a global network of magnetometers has measured these wiggles, and there are several indices of geomagnetic activity based on them. Most of these magnetometer measurements and the subsequent indices are not measured in real-time and so will come out a few hours after the activity has arrived.  During large storms, the Kp Index is the one that is most closely correlated to aurora.

Getting to know the Kp Index

The Kp index comes from the German words “planetarische kennziffer”, which translate loosely to “planetary index number” and was introduced by Julius Bartels in 1938.  There are 13 magnetometer stations located around the world (from 44 – 60 degrees latitude) and they measure the level of geomagnetic fluctuation at their respective locations recorded as a “K-value” between 0 – 9 (a bit like the Richter scale used to measure earthquakes).  The thing to note about the K-value is that represents the geomagnetic fluctuations for each location relative to what is historically “normal” for that area and NOT the raw value.

The K-values for each station are based off of the past 3-hours of activity at that station.  The Kp index is set by averaging these 13 K-values.  The map to the right shows the locations of the 13 current stations used to calculate the Kp index.  A more detailed of these stations can be found here.

A world map shows four stations in North America, seven in Europe, one in Australia, and one in New Zealand.

Image Credit: Solar-Terrestrial Centre of Excellence

The relation to aurora is that a high Kp index means that there is a higher than normal geomagnetic fluctuation at the latitudes K-values are being taken at, which in turn means there is a good chance that aurora will reach those latitudes.  Many aurora alerts services will let you know when Kp is predicted to increase and what level Kp might need to reach before you see the aurora at your location.

Kp Index vs Solar Wind Power

If you have explored the Aurorasaurus site, you may have noticed that we do not display the Kp index, but instead rely on solar wind power.  Solar wind power is different from Kp in a few ways.  First, the Kp index is determined using measurements of geomagnetic fluctuation while the solar wind power is determined using measurements of solar wind speed, magnetic field direction and strength.  Second, the traditional Kp index is a measure of activity over the last 3 hours, while solar wind power is measured in real-time. [Note that Kp Index is a measure for the entire globe, so it isn’t a reliable predictor of whether aurora will be visible in any specific place.]

For more information about the Kp index in general, you can look here.  Feel free to contact us for more information about the solar wind power equation and variables!


Sean McCloat interned with Aurorasaurus in the summer of 2015 while pursuing his masters degree in Space Studies at the University of North Dakota with a focus on the planetary sciences and astrobiology. He helped analyze the project’s data, contributed to scientific papers, presentations, and blog posts, and became good friends with Rory, the Aurorasaurus plush doll mascot.

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