Sunlight effects on the 3D polar current system determined from low Earth orbit measurements

Karl M. Laundal, Chris Finlay, Nils Olsen

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Interaction between the solar wind and the Earth’s magnetosphere is associated with large-scale currents in the ionosphere at polar latitudes that flow along magnetic field lines (Birkeland currents) and horizontally. These current systems are tightly linked, but their global behaviors are rarely analyzed together. In this paper, we present estimates of the average global Birkeland currents and horizontal ionospheric currents from the same set of magnetic field measurements. The magnetic field measurements, from the low Earth orbiting Swarm and CHAMP satellites, are used to co-estimate poloidal and toroidal parts of the magnetic disturbance field, represented in magnetic apex coordinates. The use of apex coordinates reduces effects of longitudinal and hemispheric variations in the Earth’s main field. We present global currents from both hemispheres during different sunlight conditions. The results show that the Birkeland currents vary with the conductivity, which depends most strongly on solar EUV emissions on the dayside and on particle precipitation at pre-midnight magnetic local times. In sunlight, the horizontal equivalent current flows in two cells, resembling an opposite ionospheric convection pattern, which implies that it is dominated by Hall currents. By combining the Birkeland current maps and the equivalent current, we are able to calculate the total horizontal current, without any assumptions about the conductivity. We show that the total horizontal current is close to zero in the polar cap when it is dark. That implies that the equivalent current, which is sensed by ground magnetometers, is largely canceled by the horizontal closure of the Birkeland currents.
Original languageEnglish
Article number142
JournalEarth, Planets and Space
Pages (from-to)1-19
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Bibliographical note

© 2016 The Author(s). This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.


  • Polar ionospheric currents
  • Birkeland currents
  • Equivalent currents
  • Apex coordinates
  • LEO magnetic field

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