Arctic Drilling Faces Threat from Outer Space

SCIENCE

The Northern Lights are a beautiful sight—but, it turns out, they can mess up drilling operations. (Gizmodo)

Use our resources to learn all about auroras!

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

The Northern Lights (aurora borealis) streak the skies above Alaska's taiga. Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

The Northern Lights (aurora borealis) streak the skies above Alaska’s taiga.
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • According to new research, those lovely Northern Lights can disrupt offshore oil drilling. What are the Northern Lights? Read through our encyclopedic entry on auroras or this blog post for some help.
    • Auroras are visible evidence of the interaction between the charged particles of the solar wind and our own magnificent magnetosphere. The Arctic aurora—the Northern Lights—is called the aurora borealis, while the Antarctic aurora—the Southern Lights—is called the aurora australis.
      • Specifically: Although most of the solar wind is blocked by the magnetosphere, some of its ions become briefly trapped in ring-shaped holding areas around the geomagnetic poles. Here, the ions of the solar wind collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen from Earth’s atmosphere. The energy released during these collisions causes a colorful glowing halo around the poles—an aurora.

 

  • Auroras appear about 90 kilometers (56 miles) up in the atmosphere, while offshore drilling in the Arctic takes place more than 200 meters (656 feet) below sea level. How can auroras impact drilling?
    • Most drilling projects in the Arctic use magnetic sensors to determine the horizontal and vertical positions necessary for directional drilling. (Here’s a great illustration of directional drilling.) Disturbances in the atmosphere can cause these magnetic sensors to malfunction, leading to imprecise geolocation data. The further north the drilling takes place, the more imprecise the data, off by 1-5 degrees when the Northern Lights are most powerful.

 

The Arctic Ocean basin contains more than a quarter of the world’s unexplored oil and natural gas resources. Click here for a high-resolution map of the Arctic Ocean basin, including more detailed information about the impact of territorial claims, energy and drilling, climate change, and shipping on the region. Map by the National Geographic Society

The Arctic Ocean basin contains more than a quarter of the world’s unexplored oil and natural gas resources. Click here for a high-resolution map of the Arctic Ocean basin, including more detailed information about the impact of territorial claims, energy and drilling, climate change, and shipping on the region.
Map by the National Geographic Society

  • Take a look at the map of energy prospects in the Arctic Ocean. Drilling operations in what Arctic basins (seas) may be impacted by powerful auroras?
    • The research was carried out by Norwegian scientists primarily considering the northern North Sea, sometimes called the Norwegian Sea. However, researchers discovered that aurora-affiliated inaccuracies double in the nearby Barents Sea.
    • Elsewhere in the Arctic, drilling efforts in Russia’s Kara, Laptev, and Siberian Seas may be impacted by aurora activity. Drilling in North America’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas may also be impacted.

 

  • How might oil extraction efforts avoid aurora-affiliated inaccuracies?
    • Researchers suggest engineers establish monitoring stations on land-based weather stations and directly on or even beneath the seafloor.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Gizmondo: The Northern Lights Screw Up Arctic Drilling Operations

Nat Geo: What is an aurora?

Nat Geo: Zoom in on the Arctic Ocean hi-res map

(extra credit!) University of Tromso: Oil drilling under the northern lights gives special challenges (in Norwegian)

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