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Lights go out on aurora research

Japanese scientist runs out of money

Nathan VanderKlippe
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Dec 03/01) - When Kanji Hayashi saw the aurora for the first time more than 25 years ago, he was about as far south as a man can get, at the Syowa research station in Antarctica.

The experience intrigued him, and he has studied the celestial phenomenon ever since, visiting Canada 30 times to peer at the heavenly wonder.

Recently, however, he was forced to pull the plug on a project that had been measuring the magnetic field above Iqaluit since 1991.

The city was part of a territories-wide effort that shed light on the properties of the aurora, and some of its effects on life closer to earth.

The data collection stopped when Hayashi failed to find the funds to continue gathering data. The equipment cost $600,000, plus annual operating expenses of about $20,000.

Hayashi, a professor of physics and aurora specialist at the University of Tokyo, was studying the magnetic properties of the Northern (or Southern) Lights.

The aurora occurs when charged particles emitted by the sun -- electrons and protons -- are dragged down by the Earth's magnetic fields. When this "solar wind" hits atoms of the atmosphere, it releases its energy as light.

Hayashi says his studies, which have included first-person observations as well as mechanical data collection, have furthered our understanding of high-altitude physics.

He also discovered that the Northern Lights can actually short out power lines.

As he explained it, the magnetic field surrounding the Earth is compressed when solar winds strengthens, pushing an electric current down through the atmosphere and producing an underground electric current.

In some cases, he said, the underground current jumps onto power transmission lines, which can lose efficiency or even short out. The latter is what happened in 1989, when much of Quebec lost power during a particularly strong solar storm.

Curiously, the sun is now just coming off the peak of its 11-year cycle. Northern Lights were seen as far south as Georgia, U.S.A., in November, although no power lines were shorted out.