Twitter is Helping Scientists Spot More Northern Lights

A new study shows the power of social media to pinpoint where and when auroras occur

Northern Lights
Heinz Hudelist/imageBROKER/Corbis

What do #thedress and aurora borealis have in common? They’re both things people talk about on Twitter — and, according to LiveScience’s Becky Oskin, Twitter users are actually helping improve chances of spotting the Northern Lights.

When a 2011 geomagnetic storm brought the Northern Lights as far south as Alabama, reports Oskin, a NASA scientist named Elizabeth MacDonald noticed that the phenomenon sparked thousands of Tweets. In response, MacDonald founded Aurorasaurus — a site that lets people report sightings and also verify Tweets that could be from users who spotted the Northern Lights themselves. Now, reports Oskin, scientists have published a study showing how effective Twitter really is as a measure of auroral activity.

They found that not only do the number of Tweets related to the Northern Lights peak in sync with the aurora borealis, but that the number of Tweets correlates with the strength of the aurora. When they corrected their data for location and time of day, researchers concluded that “Twitter can provide both specific details about an individual aurora and accurate real-time indication of when, and even from where, an aurora is visible.”

Nathan Case, who lead the study, tells Oskin that not only do Tweets give a great indicator of whether auroras are happening, but they also are great at showing nuances about the phenomenon like color. “We have much wider coverage of what colors are being seen,” he said.

Case in point: the gorgeous aurora pictures people post on Twitter every day. Here’s an example shot by storm-chaser Jacob Ferden near Fountain Minnesota this week:

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