Contesting In The Arctic

Contesting In The Arctic - A Brief Tale of A Lit Night Sky

Kangerlussuaq; smack in the middle of the Aurora Belt

We've all heard stories about noise levels so low that when the antenna is plugged in -- one wonders if the receiver might be burned out. Our receiving conditions on Black Ridge are exactly like that. Quiet. Perfect contest conditions, but there is a catch!

Black Ridge, rising some 300 meters above sea level is where our station is located -- housed in a decommissioned aurora research facility.

The wooden structure holding many of our antennas (referred to by locals as "Skafottet", Danish: "The Scaffold"). It used to be a launch ramp for research rockets (amongst other purposes) containing radioactive isotopes of various elements having a short half-life. These rockets were shot into space to create artificial auroral displays which were then studied.

What exactly is Aurora?

Aurora, or Aurora Polaris is named after the Greek goddess of dawn. It may refer to the multitude of colors sometimes seen in the sky at sunrise. It is breathtaking to watch and truly looks out of this world. Auroral displays are most common during the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle, where solar activity is elevated and solar winds more intense, but it is not caused by sunlight. Lots of folklore about the significance of Aurora exists; it is however neither divine intervention nor magic.

The cause of Aurora can be difficult to wrap one's head around because it requires some knowledge of physics that humans don't intuitively acquire in their daily lives. Futher, it is impossible to predict with more than at most a few days' notice and it even so predictions are not particularly reliable. Hence, the attribution of magical or God-like properties to this beautiful and illusive phenomenon is somewhat justified. At least in my humble opinion.

When a solar flare erupts we get the first notice about 8 minutes later here on Earth. This is because we have dedicated satellites with specifically designed cameras pointed towards the sun. The first warning comes in the form of visible light, x-rays and what-have-we of electromagnetic radiation which travels at the speed of light.

Much slower yet incredibly fast is the following solar wind. Its speed is usually between 100-800 kilometers per second. It consists of myriad of different particles; protons, electrons, neutrons, helium nuclei etc. These particles have mass and can be thought of as shrapnel travelling at high velocity.

Aurora is caused by collisions of said solar particles (protons dominate) with atmospheric constituents (air) in the ionosphere. Atomic oxygen returning from an excited state is responsible for the most common green emission -- red and sometimes orange, too.

Bluish and purple (also sometimes red) displays are caused by atomic nitrogen and nitrogen based molecules that have been excited or ionized, and returns to their ground states or recombine; emitting photons of a given wavelength.

Excitement and ionization

These are but fancy words and the physics may present as complicated and weird. Ionization means that particle collisions cause electrons to break free from their home atom. Excitement means that the atoms and molecules retain their electrons and remain neutral, but the the electrons are knocked into different orbitals -- and unstable state that is bound to eventually return to a rest state called the ground state.

Upon returning, the energy that was transferred to the atom by the colliding particle is released by photon emission which our eyes interpret as light. This happens all the time in the ionosphere, but under certain conditions like during solar storms; the number of solar particles precipitating down along the magnetic field lines of the Earth near the poles grows immensely. The luminosity of the Aurora over Kangerlussuaq may be so intense that one can easily read a paper or drive with the headlights turned off (please don't do both at the same time!).

Why is Aurora bad for radio then?

Auroral displays bear witness of an unstable magnetosphere. Solar storms cause more than usual ionization of the D layer of the ionosphere, infamous for causing radio blackouts. This is due to energy absorption by the ionized air at altitudes from about 90 to 150 kilometers. The key difference between the lower and the upper layers of the ionosphere is their density.

That is, the distance between the atoms and molecules that make them up. At D layer altitudes the density is high relative to F layer altitudes. Keep in mind that the F layer is responsible for propagation of shortwave signals that famously "hop" around the planet. This is possible because the time it takes from atoms are ionized to they recombine with electrons is longer --because they are further apart -- and incident radio waves do not have enough energy to force recombination.

At lower altitudes the average distance between the corpuscles of the ionosphere is much smaller and thus they recombine much more rapidly than their friends in the F layer.

Our precious radio signals brought forth by expensive equipment and kilowatt hours are wasted in aiding said recombination. They quite literally vanish in thin air!

When solar activity is high there is an elevated risk of frequent and increased D layer attenuation. This even more so in the polar regions. It could be said that being a shortwave radio amateur going to the Arctic to do a contest is a fairly honest form of masochism.

The effects on contest scores

Pileups on the high bands can be very intense and go on for hours. Working down a pileup under these conditions is a wonderful experience -- but as results from previous years indicate, contesting in the Arctic is gambling with high stakes:

CQ WW SSB 2018

OX7A M/S | 3 892 810 points | 4 024 QSOs | 91 zones | 295 countries

CQ WW SSB 2019

OX7A M/2 | 948 184 points | 1 765 QSOs | 56 zones | 176 countries

The astute reader will notice a striking over-all difference between the 2018 and 2019 scores. What happened? Kangerlussuaq is located in the middle of the Aurora zone. The entire sky can be lit up during geomagnetic events rendering frequencies below 10 MHz useless. The ionosphere become a big-ass dummyload during such an event.

In 2018 we had a faint display one of the nights before the contest and that was it. In 2019 we had all the colors of the rainbow dancing in the sky for 6 nights in a row -- overlapping most of the contest.

Moral of the story: You will not win any contests by going to Greenland, but what is winning compared to the privilege of visiting a part of the world where only few people ever get to go?

The above shows the physical location of OX7A overlooking the entire city of Kangerlussuaq.