It Takes a Community to Raise Aurorasaurus: Gratitude and Retrospective

Over the past decade, Aurorasaurus has grown from a persistent idea in the mind of Dr. Liz MacDonald to a worldwide initiative that has contributed research and discoveries to aurora science. At its heart, Aurorasaurus is a community effort, only possible through the contributions of thousands of citizen scientists, scientific experts, team members and volunteers. Explore the last eight years with us and learn how you can join in the next decade of discovery!



Against silhouetted trees, a huge, soft, pink-red aurora waves against the starry sky from the bottom left to the top right of the image.

Aurora in Independence, Mo., Oct. 24, 2011. Image Courtesy of Tobias Billings, NASA website

Social media and solar storms

On October 24, a solar storm filled the northern sky with aurora, its red colors visible as far south as Alabama. As the sky lit up, so did Twitter. For the first time in history, a solar maximum would correspond with social media and digital cameras. Dr. Liz MacDonald remembered: “I had heard of Twitter, so I got online that night and could see a lot of people recording their observations.” The idea was born for a platform that would use the power of crowdsourcing on social media to collect real-time data about auroras.



Incubating an idea

Liz set out to make her idea a reality, securing seed funding from the Los Alamos National Lab and pulling together the first few people who would contribute to creating Aurorasaurus at the nonprofit New Mexico Consortium. LANL computer information scientist Reid Priedhorsky and summer intern Yan Cao from Penn State University’s iSchool helped to create a website. A startup called SocialFlow had used Twitter to map the 2011 East Coast earthquake in real time—technology with perfect applications for Aurorasaurus. Michael Chin provided access to tweets about auroras. By autumn, they had constructed a prototype that allowed citizen scientists to report their observations, as well as scraping crowdsourced data from Twitter. 

While numerous aurora-focused communities were already established, nothing existed yet to bring them together for a common goal. Liz envisioned Aurorasaurus as a way to advance science while building ties between aurora enthusiasts and the scientific community. As the prototype developed, many would join the effort and propose to expand the idea. 



Growing a team

Ten people stand in front of screens that show space weather data

The Aurorasaurus team checking out space weather at NASA’s Community Coordinated Modeling Center, June 2014.

In July, Aurorasaurus received a million-dollar, interdisciplinary, innovative INSPIRE Award from the National Science Foundation. With this, Aurorasaurus would launch at solar maximum, and take advantage of the peak in the Sun’s 11-year cycle. 

As development began in earnest, Co-Investigator Michelle K. Hall of Science Education Solutions helped envision an educational component to the site. Co-Investigator Dr. Andrea Tapia from Penn State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology contributed much expertise from the human-centered computing field. She studied how the response to rare, large events like auroras could help in the case of disasters and the emerging field of crisis informatics. The Aurorasaurus platform and apps took shape with help from Ideum, under the guidance of lead developer David Kingman. 

Aurorasaurus reached new international heights when Liz won the CASIS “What Would You Send to the ISS?” contest. She proposed to send a geotagged camera to the International Space Station to record the Northern and Southern Lights from above and integrate the data into Aurorasaurus. 



Aurorasaurus hatches

A screenshot of the Aurorasaurus website shows a map of the northern US and Canada with a pink aurora forecast band swooping through it. Reports are marked by pins with various symbols. Tweet locations are marked by pins with the Twitter logo. One is fully displayed on the lefthand side of the screen, with an arrow pointing to its location. It reads: "All done! Driving home under NorthernLights."

The Aurorasaurus website in 2014

A map shows the borders between Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the US. In the top right are the green bands of the aurora forecast. Swooping diagonally from top left toward bottom right through the center of the image is a red line—the aurora view line. The line has been extended with a southerly U-shape to accommodate reports of aurora, marked with pins and a blue triangle. A black line shows where the original aurora view line was.

February 3, 2016: the red aurora view line adapted to include unexpected sightings. Case, N. A., et al. (2016), A real‐time hybrid aurora alert system: Combining citizen science reports with an auroral oval model, Earth and Space Science

While the project began in New Mexico and remains a New Mexico Consortium initiative, its network grew and new possibilities opened as Liz joined NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. 

Dr. Nathan Case (now of the University of Lancaster and AuroraWatch UK) joined the Aurorasaurus team as a postdoc. A prolific writer, he produced early scholarly papers about the project, showing the efficacy of Aurorasaurus’ approach of using tweets to track aurora sightings. These included the first demonstrations that:

In October, the team launched apps and a fully functional web product. The global movement to involve the public in aurora research had begun! But first, we had to get the word out and grow. The talented Kasha Patel—GSFC science writer by day, and science comedian by night—led communications and outreach via social media. 



Solar max and a mystery

3,600 users | 2,000 web observations | 1.5 million tweets | 3,600 verified tweets

An Aurorasaurus map of the northern US and Canada shows a flood of pins marking where people have seen aurora, and stretching as far south as Virginia

Aurorasaurus map of the St. Patrick’s Day Storm

In March, the “St. Patrick’s Day Storm” became the largest geomagnetic storm in Solar Cycle 24. Auroras were visible in the US as far south as southern Virginia, and in Europe, people in the south of France reported seeing the Northern Lights. Aurorasaurus saw a 50% increase in registrations over the course of a day, and citizen scientists reported more than 170 sightings and verified more than 420 tweets. These reports of ground-truth sightings highlighted opportunities for citizen science to contribute valuable validation data. Postdoc Nathan Case later published a case study showing that these reports revealed the aurora outside the expected area, “beating the view line.”

To spread the word about aurora citizen science, Aurorasaurus reached out to community science groups like the Alberta Aurora Chasers and met their very keen leader Chris Ratzlaff. In response to public interest, Aurorasaurus also started to investigate the mysterious ‘proton arc’ being reported and discussed online.

Over two years, Aurorasaurus had grown from an idea to a prototype to an active project. In order to learn more about the citizen scientists and evaluate our progress, the Aurorasaurus team surveyed users. We use this information today as we evaluate and improve our system. 

A silhouette of a person is surrounded by statistics about Aurorasaurus users. The title reads "Who is the Aurorasaurus user?"

Aurorasaurus survey results

Near the end of the year, postdoc Dr. Burcu Kosar joined the team, contributing her expertise.



A citizen science discovery

5,000 users | 4,400 web observations | 2.4 million tweets | 5,700 verified tweets

In 2016, Liz was invited to the University of Calgary to give a scientific colloquium on Aurorasaurus and met members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers in person. They began discussing the mysterious proton arc in person along with Professor Eric Donovan. Shortly after that, Chris Ratzlaff affectionately nicknamed the phenomenon “STEVE,” after a mysterious hedge in the animated feature, Over the Hedge. The name stuck and was eventually backronymed to “Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.” Liz, Eric, and Chris began to collect further findings, investigate, and discuss more online and at scientific conferences; other colleagues and citizen scientists joined in. Members of the Aurorasaurus Ambassador network also participated in this discussion and fledgling research effort. 

On July 25, Notanee Bourassa brought his two young children outside to view the aurora, and in photographing it with timelapse caught the new phenomenon in great detail and reported it to Aurorasaurus and online. At the same time, on the same night, ground-based cameras and satellite observations captured simultaneous observations of the arc from below and above for the first time and another photographer, Song Despins confirmed the STEVE sighting to Eric. As Notanee said, “It is my hope that with our timely reporting of sightings, researchers can study the data so we can together unravel the mystery of Steve’s origin, creation, physics and sporadic nature.”

Both Chris and Notanee were founding members of the Aurorasaurus Ambassador Network, established in June, which expanded upon the original Aurorasaurus Scientist Network founded in 2014 for outreach and answering of citizen scientist questions. Volunteer Ambassadors promoted Aurorasaurus in their local communities, educated their communities on how to use Aurorasaurus and share the project’s materials, and provided input on ideas for new website features and content. The Ambassador program will revitalize in 2020—if you are interested in joining, please fill out this brief form and tell us why! 



Titles, summaries, and thumbnail images for three articles about STEVE are listed.

News outlets featured STEVE

A phenomenal mystery

6,500 users | 6,300 web observations | 3.4 million tweets | 7,400 verified tweets

With exciting new questions to investigate, the Aurorasaurus team, including postdoc Burcu, threw itself into research and writing. Excitement over STEVE began to build when Dr. Eric Donovan spoke at the European Space Agency (ESA) meeting about their Swarm magnetic field mission. Swarm had captured data on STEVE for the first time and provided a way to measure the phenomenon. In his discussions, Eric hailed the importance of citizen science initiatives like Aurorasaurus, spreading the word about how the public could contribute to our initiative. ESA made an announcement that quickly went viral, and was picked up on outlets like the New York Times, CNN, and The stage was set for STEVE’s grand entrance in 2018.



Introducing STEVE

Against a starlit sky, a series of purple ribbons flow, overlapping, from top left to bottom right, with green structures at the bottom.

STEVE is seen as a thin purple ribbon of light. Credit: ©Megan Hoffman

7,100 users | 7,100 observations | 3.8 million tweets | 7,900 verified tweets
As of June

In 2018, we published the first research on STEVE, formally introducing the phenomenon to the world. The discovery in the paper was not that the STEVE arc was new, but establishing with the satellite observations that it was the optical manifestation of a ‘subauroral ion drift’, a charged east to west flowing river of particles. In addition to news and viral coverage, STEVE was featured in public science outlets like American Scientist and NPR’s Wow in the World podcast.

In the midst of the excitement, the Aurorasaurus team never stopped. Liz met with aurora enthusiasts in Calgary, Alberta, and saw STEVE in person for the first time. In addition, Aurorasaurus postdoc Dr. Burcu Kosar published Aurorasaurus’ 2015-16 data, both raw and cleaned, and a paper providing more details and context. The information that the project had gathered became easily accessible to everyone.



A new revival

The year 2019 marked new beginnings for Aurorasaurus. Aurorasaurus was awarded new funding through NASA and the National Science Foundation, bringing on board Asher Pembroke to update the software and Laura Brandt to help manage the project. 

A woman and a man stand smiling in front of a poster at a conference.

Citizen scientists Hannahbella Nel and Dr. Michael Hunnekuhl presented their work at European Space Weather Week 2019.

June was a month of celebration. The Canadian short documentary Chasing STEVE, which features the aurora hunters and scientists who first identified the phenomenon, premiered in Edmonton at the TELUS World of Science. It would later be featured at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Conference. In the US, the Aurorasaurus and STEVE teams were recognized with a NASA Honor Award – Group Achievement Award, and Liz was also a 2019 Agency Honor Award Recipient of the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal. The Aurorasaurus and STEVE teams had previously received NASA GSFC’s 2018 Robert H. Goddard Group Honor Award for Exceptional Achievement in Science. Liz said, “It is wonderful that this award recognizes some folks who were not co-authors on the original ground-breaking paper but nonetheless have made critical contributions: Michael Cook, Song Despins, and Kasha Patel.” The project was recognized not only by the public but by the NASA community. 

Aurorasaurus-associated citizen scientists showcased the importance of citizen science to the field. At European Space Weather Week, two citizen scientists who contributed to Aurorasaurus gave presentations: Hannahbella Nel, an aurora guide, spoke to her experiences in the field, and Dr. Michael Hunnekuhl, a physicist who has devoted extensive volunteer time to researching STEVE, presented his findings and extensive catalog of STEVE sightings.



Forward to the future

We are thrilled to announce that Asher has begun to revitalize the Aurorasaurus website and bring it up to date for additional citizen science records in 2020. Stay tuned for more improvements in the new year!

Two women strike a power pose, each with an arm around the other's shoulder. They are standing next to a snowmobile on a snowy landscape. The lighting is dark but reflective strips on their clothes glow bright.

Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby
Photo Credit: Hearts in the Ice

Aurorasaurus has been collaborating with citizen scientists Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby, who are overwintering in Svalbard, Norway, until May 2020. “Hearts in the Ice,” as they call their team, will not be providing real-time data, since their connectivity via Iridium satellite phone is very limited. The team does not have access to alerts or solar wind data, so they use their best observation skills and other low-tech equipment like compasses to make observations. The partnership has already yielded “rocket citizen science,” as Hilde and Sunniva captured photos of artificial aurora from a sounding rocket launch experiment in November 2019. We are looking forward to more collaborations with Hilde and Sunniva as their 9-month expedition progresses.

Early in 2020, Liz will travel to Yellowknife, Canada, and Fairbanks, Alaska. While there, she will meet with the public and university organizations—and work on her aurora photography skills!

In March, members of the Aurorasaurus team will travel to Pennsylvania for HamSci 2020. The ham radio community contributes to ionospheric citizen science and is well-positioned to study space weather effects like auroras. We are looking for citizen scientists to present and learn about how they can help bring ham radio and aurora enthusiasts together. Stay tuned! 


A smartphone on the Aurorasaurus Twitter sits next to a small red long-necked dinosaur plush

Our mascot Rory helping with @TweetAurora

Over the last eight years, Aurorasaurus has helped make discoveries, link communities, and inspire the public to see the aurora and appreciate aurora science. At its heart, the project is a community effort, and would not be possible without the contributions of citizen scientists, scientific experts, team members, and volunteers. Thank you for all you do to make Aurorasaurus a success! 

In 2020, we need you more than ever. Start the new decade strong with us by joining as an Ambassador, following us on Facebook and Twitter, and contributing your own observations. With your help, we can’t wait to see what exciting surprises the ROARing🦕‘20s bring!

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