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At the Arctic on a boat cruise off Svalbard at 78
degrees North are from left: UKZN’s Professor
Jon Rash, Dr Heather McCreadie and Dr Judy
Stephenson with Jon Ward of the SA National
Space Agency Space Science.

Instead of heading south to the Antarctic as they usually do, members of UKZN’s Space Physics group recently took a trip up north – to the Arctic.

Situated within UKZN’s School of Chemistry and Physics, the Space Physics group runs a joint project with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) Space Science, operating an upper atmosphere radar in Antarctica as part of the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP).

This radar is part of the international network SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network).

Recently, however, three members of the group travelled to the opposite end of the Earth to attend an international conference. The SuperDARN 2014 Workshop was held on Svalbard, in the high Arctic at 78 degrees North. Professor Jon Rash, Dr Heather McCreadie and Dr Judy Stephenson attended and gave presentations at the workshop, hosted by the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).

Svalbard is the name of a group of islands about 900 km north of mainland Norway; the largest of which is Spitsbergen where the only significant town, Longyearbyen, has a population of just over 2 000. ‘The main inhabitants of Svalbard, however, are the estimated 3 000 polar bears,’ said Rash, ‘but fortunately they are rarely seen close to the town.’

Although coal mining has been the main industry on Svalbard for nearly 100 years, tourism has now overtaken it with winter and summer activities, such as dog-sledding.

As the “northernmost accessible destination”, Svalbard is also a valuable site for scientific research with part of the European Incoherent Scatter Radar sited there while rocket probes of the upper atmosphere are launched from Ny Alesund. Another radar in the SuperDARN network is also under construction there, adding to the current 33 radars which cover large areas of the northern and southern auroral regions and adjacent mid-latitudes.

The SuperDARN radars provide one of the major ground-based inputs to Space Weather observations, and the research reported on by the UKZN Physicists examined two aspects of this.

McCreadie presented work on localised high-speed flows observed by the radars during very quiet conditions, and related them to the reconfiguration of the Earth’s magnetic field. Stephenson’s presentation dealt with oscillations in the magnetic field observed with the radars through the associated to-and-fro motion of charged particles.

The South African team at the workshop also included Mr Jon Ward, Radar Engineer at SANSA, who has been partly responsible for the construction of a new digital radar for the South African Antarctic base Sanae, which he reported on at the Workshop. The Sanae radar contributes to the massive SuperDARN database, and scientists from UKZN and SANSA continue to make valuable contributions to the understanding of Space Weather through the analysis of these data.