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Qualitative Data from Citizen Scientists Enhances AMGeO’s Auroras Research

March 1, 2021

By: Kimberly Mann Bruch

Aurora_photo by Paul Zizka.jpg

This image shows an aurora with the rare “picket fence” pattern, which is a green band accompanying a dynamic, thin, westward-aligned structure with bright purple and white emissions. The EarthCube-funded AMGeO project has been working to incorporate aurora sighting reports by citizen scientists into their open source data science tool that aims to further geospace science knowledge. Credit: Paul Zika.

In response to solar storms, electrons and ions are produced in the Earth’s magnetosphere that collide with the upper atmosphere’s oxygen and nitrogen. This collision causes a release of energy in the form of a magnificent glow of light - an aurora. Only visible in high-latitude regions, auroras have long been perceived as quite mysterious. One such aurora, seen near Alberta, Canada, as shown in the accompanying image, is called the Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement (STEVE) and was discovered by a group of citizen scientists via their collaboration with the Aurorasaurus project.

When the AMGeO (Assimilative Mapping of Geospace Observations) project team at the University of Colorado at Boulder caught wind of STEVE and how much qualitative citizen science data the Aurorasaurus project had collected, they decided to create an informal collaboration to see how they could work together to better understand these magical phenomena.

“One of the goals of our open source data science tool, called AMGeO, is to make it easier for geospace community members to easily fuse data obtained from an array of diverse instrumentation,” said Tomoko Matsuo, AMGeO principal investigator and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department. “While we successfully use multiple types of heterogeneous data in AMGeO, thanks to machine learning techniques for examining various aspects of the coupling of the Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere, including auroras, it is very challenging to make use of auroral sighting reports by citizen scientists.”

“However, we have found that insight from citizen scientists has proved invaluable to our research,” continued Liam Kilcommons, AMGeO lead software engineer at University of Colorado Boulder. “Reports of STEVE sightings by the general public tell us when that type of aurora is happening. We use their reports to decide when to gather data from quantitative sources and use it to run AMGeO.”

Valerie Svaldi, an undergraduate engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines, has been working with Matsuo and Kilcommons on the AMGeO and STEVE collaboration for the past three years and recently presented their research findings at the American Geophysical Union Conference. Svaldi is currently working on an additional peer-reviewed journal article as a first author.

“It is important for us to have more information about auroras because their details provide us with an incredible amount of insight on the development and evolution of the interaction of solar wind with the Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere,” explained Svaldi. “This, in turn, allows us to better understand space weather, which greatly impacts our communications infrastructures here on Earth.”

AMGeO is a collaborative data science platform for the geospace science community for bringing together a diverse set of heterogeneous geospace observations from NSF-funded facility programs and individual community users to obtain complete maps of high-latitude ionospheric electrodynamics for scientific discovery and space weather research. The project is funded by NSF EarthCube grants ICER 1928403 to the University of Colorado Boulder, ICER 1928327 to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and ICER 1928358 to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.



Tomoko Matsuo, AMGeO principal investigator and assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department, mentored Valerie Svaldi, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines, to present their research findings at the American Geophysical Union Conference. Svaldi started her academic career at Red Rocks Community College prior to transferring to the Colorado School of Mines. Now a senior, she attributes much of her academic success to her participation in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. “Thanks to the REU program, I worked  with Professor Matsuo and her team for three years,” said Svaldi. “During this time, I have not only learned an enormous amount of information about auroras, but also data science techniques, as well as making valuable professional connections with NASA scientists and citizen scientists along the way.”

About EarthCube

EarthCube is a community-driven activity sponsored by the National Science Foundation to transform research in the academic geosciences community. EarthCube aims to create a well-connected environment to share data and knowledge in an open, transparent, and inclusive manner, thus accelerating our ability to better understand and predict the Earth’s systems. EarthCube membership is free and open to anyone in the Geosciences, as well as those building platforms to serve the Earth Sciences. The EarthCube Office is led by the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) on the UC San Diego campus. 


Media Contact: 

Kimberly Mann Bruch, San Diego Supercomputer Center Communications,


Membership Contact:

Lynne Schreiber, San Diego Supercomputer Center EarthCube Office,


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