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Magnetic Field Program Attracts Scientific Attention

3D Artist's Rendering of the Magnetosphere

Geomagnetic Earth features south and north magnetic poles, roughly corresponding to the geographic North and South poles, and a magnetic equator. Unlike the Earth’s geographic equator, the magnetic equator is not fixed, but varies up to hundreds of miles due to magnetic storms and other daily events.

Image of auroral oval from DE-1 satellite

In one familiar form of magnetospheric activity -- colorful auroras -- electrically charged particles in space enter Earth’s magnetic field, become trapped and are sporadically accelerated by processes still not totally understood, whereupon the particles follow Earth’s magnetic field line toward the magnetic poles. There, the particles hit gases in the Earth’s atmosphere and yield energy we perceive as colored light in the sky. The energy powering the aurora lights comes from charged particles leaving the Sun, journeying about two days to Earth’s magnetic field.

"The fluxgate magnetometers allow us 22 bit precision. That's VERY precise."
- M. Engebretson

According to one of the project leaders, Mark Engebretson, there have already been two very important outcomes of the Russian/American MACCS collaboration. "First, the Russians, with their great theoretical training, have seen new things in our data. Secondly, by combining the Canadian/American array data with the Russian array data we have discovered an important feedback connection between the dayside and nightside." Dr. Engebretson also notes the importance of the collaboration between government agencies. "With NSF funding the ground-based research and NASA funding the satellite research everyone benefits."


On a clear day, you cannot see two essential factors allowing our very existence on planet Earth — an atmosphere of several layers of gases which enable us to breathe, and a gigantic magnetic field, or magnetosphere, which extends much, much farther above us into space. While most people realize that earth's magnetic field makes it possible to find the direction of North (using a compass), only since the space age is it becoming understood that this magnetic field also protects us from copious flows of ionizing radiation that hurtle through interplanetary space. The metal-rich Earth core acts like a magnificent magnet, extending its influence far beyond our atmosphere. The magnetic field varies in strength around the globe, in billowing lines of force that are strongest at two magnetic poles, in the vicinity of Ellef Ringnes Island, Canada, and Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica. At the magnetic poles, the magnetic field is strictly vertical so a compass shows no direction.

Photo of Spectrogram
A magnetic field spectrogram showing power in the 0-100 mHz band over a 15-hour interval.

Since the Earth’s magnetic field is constantly changing, scientists cannot accurately make predictions of its behavior for the distant future. By constantly measuring the magnetic field, however, they can observe how the field is changing over several years, then create mathematical models of the magnetic field activities.

A vital international project features remotely located ground-based observational stations across Arctic Canada and Eastern Russia which study these magnetic field interactions and other events in the Earth’s space environment.MACCS locations on globe Through this cooperative American / Canadian / Russian venture called MACCS (Magnetometer Array for Cusp and Cleft Studies) , the National Science Foundation continues its long-standing commitment to space physics and natural sciences. The program is operated by Augsburg College, Minnesota, and Boston University, Massachusetts; the Institute of the Physics of the Earth in Moscow, and the Institute of Cosmophysical Research and Aeronomy in Yakutsk; with special assistance from the Geological Survey of Canada and University of Alberta.
MACCS station data
MACCS station data, Jan. 1 through 10, 1996
Faculty and students at Augsburg and B.U. have collaborated to construct and install magnetometers --- instruments that measure the Earth’s magnetic field --- and computer-based data recording systems.

The MACCS array of observational stations includes 8 magnetometer observatories that record high time-resolution, magnetic field samples at one-half-second intervals. These eight stations, plus four others operated by the geological survey of Canada, are in Northeastern Canada, at the northern end of Hudson Bay, on Baffin Island and on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. The stations comprise an unprecedented range of coordinated research points which results in a unique database for the investigation of magnetic storms, ionospheric and magnetic substorm currents and waves, auroras, atmospheric optical emissions and other important magnetospheric phenomena.

Areas of inquiry in the MACCS array also include:

  • the physical signatures of magnetospheric boundary layers
  • the spatial extent of broadband ULF magnetic pulsations at cusp/cleft latitudes
  • growth of plasmoids associated with magnetic substorms
  • and other compelling topics for savvy space scientists.

Photo of MACCS sensor
A view of the MAACS sensor at Gjoa Haven.

This research helps scientific communities better understand and predict space weather patterns. The ground-based observations of magnetic activities at high latitudes further converge with satellite-derived data to track global magnetospheric activities. The MACCS array offers astrophysicists, astronomers, engineers, geologists, meteorologists, ecologists and others greater knowledge of space physics and associated Earth phenomena. And, as American students and scientists interact with physicists and younger scientists from participating nations, this program signifies the cooperative, global nature of environmental science.

For more information please see:

The Augsburg MACCS Information Center at:

The Boston University Center for Space Physics at:

The Moscow Institute of the Physics of the Earth at:

The Space Science Institute at:

This research is partially supported by International Programs.

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