User Guide for Glendale Aurora App

User Guide

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Looks Very Scary - Where do I start?

It looks like the control panel for the Starship Enterprise!

Don't panic! It looks far more complicated than it is. Read this guide and you will understand the importance of each piece of information to aurora hunting.

If you are a total novice then you don't need to look further than the message at the top of the app, which is basically just giving you a plain English summary of what all the scary-looking numbers are telling us right now.

All my other apps give me Kp. I understand Kp!

Kp simply does NOT work. Apps that use Kp will get lucky sometimes. Mostly, they will be consistently wrong.

Read on and I will explain what each section of the app means. But first...

Is it an App or isn't it? How do I install it?

It's not in the App Store, so it isn't an app!

There are two kinds of apps, 'native' apps and 'web' apps.

Native apps are what come through the App Store and were designed by phone manufacturers to tie customers to their particular brand of phone. A native app will only run on one maker's phones. Developers need special tools and software to produce them and, hence, you will often be charged to download them. A native app has to be produced for every device, and often operating system version, that the developer wishes to support, so it is very time-consuming and expensive to produce them.

Web apps are internet-based apps that can be installed and run on any device, not just phones but tablets, desktop PCs and laptops too. Web apps can now do virtually everything that native apps can do, including accessing your GPS, gyro-compass and notification system. The only difference is the way that you download and install them. Once installed, they look and behave exactly like native apps.

How do I get the thing on my phone then?

Visit the app in the web-browser on your phone. Use Chrome or Safari. It will look just like you've visited any other web-page. You can bookmark it just like a web-page. However, that is not the way to do it! If you click the little icon in the top right of the screen that is three vertical dots (or a square with an arrow on iPhones), a little menu will appear and one of the options is 'Add to Start/Home Screen'. If you click that, the app gets packaged up like a native app and installed onto your phone. You will get an icon for it on your start screen, just like all your other apps.

The app is here: https://aurora-alerts.uk/

It doesn't work on my iPhone!

The app does work perfectly on your iPhone, as long as you install it as explained above. You just will not receive push alerts on your phone but can get alerts via twitter (instructions below).

Apple do not allow web apps to access to the notification system on iPhone and iPads. The advantage to them is that this forces app developers to make apps specifically for Apple products and ties both you and the developers to their brand.

I've got an iPhone!

The app works just fine on iPhone or iPad but you install it differently to normal apps. You will not find it in the App Store.

To install it:

  1. Open Safari and visit this link : https://aurora-alerts.uk/
  2. Click allow this app to use your location (always).
  3. Turn your phone to landscape.
  4. Click the icon at the top right of Safari (sometimes bottom middle) that is a square with an arrow pointing out.
  5. A menu will appear, click 'add to home/start screen'.
  6. Click 'Add' in top right corner.
  7. The app will then be installed on your phone and there will be an icon for it on your start screen.
  8. Click the icon and the app will behave exactly like all the other apps on your phone.

How do I get the alerts then?

You can get alerts from the app on your iPhone but you have to be a bit devious and get them via Twitter.

Install the Twitter App and follow @SkyeAuroras. Click the cog wheel and turn on notifications.

I'm a total beginner. Help!

Just stick to the information at the top of the app until you have gained your confidence. The 'nowcast' at the top is giving you a simple explanation of what the current situation and prospects are.

Underneath the 'nowcast', any alerts that the app has issued will be shown. The aurora alerts are colour-coded:

  • Yellow = Applicable to Northern Scotland, Iceland and Southern Scandinavia upwards.
  • Orange = Applicable down to Southern Scotland, Northern England, Northern Ireland, Denmark and Lithuania upwards.
  • Red = Applicable to the whole UK and Ireland, Netherlands, Germany and Poland upwards.
  • Major, Severe, Extreme = Additional levels indicating exceptionally strong auroras. Do not miss these.

Further down you will see 'live reports', which features a map showing reports of sightings across the country that have been submitted by users of the app. If there are reports of auroras from places further south of you then it is 'game on' where you are.

The map has four symbols:

  • Cloud - Obvious... it's cloudy.
  • Red Cross - Sky is clear but there is no aurora on camera.
  • Green Tick - Aurora on camera.
  • White cloud on Blue Background - Noctilucent clouds seen (this is a summer thing).

If you swipe right/left on the map, it will toggle between the UK, Iceland and Scandinavia.

At the bottom of each panel on the app there is a help button that will give you a basic explanation of what it means.

I get the basics. Tell me more!

All of the scary figures on the app are colour-coded to tell you how important they are. Yellow is good, orange is great and red is fab.

When something important is happening, the panels will open and lots of numbers will be lit up in pretty colours.

Now lets look at each panel in detail and understand what it is telling us...

Substorms! Must understand substorms!

Substorms are the most important thing on the app. Substorm equals aurora. No substorm, no aurora. Strong substorm, strong aurora. Simples!

In the substorm panel on the app, you will see the substorm phase and beside it a number in nanoTeslas (nT). That number is the single most important number on the app. It is the strength of the substorm and, therefore, the strength of the aurora in the sky. You want it to be big and negative called a 'big dip'. The bigger the dip, the better the aurora and the further south it can be seen. Falling (more negative) is good, rising is bad.

A substorm can drift south bringing the aurora with it. Just like a thunderstorm, the closer it comes to us the better we see it. The distance of the substorm from you (in kilometres) is shown, with a label beside showing roughly where the substorm is, e.g. Norway, Iceland, Faeroes, Shetland, in terms of latitude.

A substorm goes through three phases, which can take many hours to complete. These are called 'growth', 'expansion' and 'recovery'.

The best aurora happens in the expansion and recovery phases. In the growth phase, the aurora is just developing, charging up.

The point when the substorm switches from growth to expansion is called 'onset' by scientists or 'the aurora's kicking off now' to normal folk. This app is the only app in the world that is able to tell you that the 'aurora's kicking off now' because it is the only app in the world that is tracking substorms.

Substorms may stall in their growth phase and when this happens the app will tell you. When it stalls, the substorm is primed and ready to kick-off but IMF conditions mean that the onset will be delayed. It can take anything from 1 to 4 hours for a stalled substorm to kick off... but it will, you just have to be patient.

Active Substorm

When a substorm is active, you will see information displayed showing when it started, peaked in its growth and expansion phases, together with the peak strengths in each phase.

Also, shown in this section are measurements of the substorm strength taken at various locations in Norway and Sweden. The closest place to the current location of the substorm is highlighted with a white box. The places are arranged vertically in order of descending latitude. The further down the white box is, the better, as it means the substorm is closer to the UK.

Beside each strength value you will see an arrow appearing. This indicates whether the value is rising or falling and how fast it is changing. When a substorm is active then arrows pointing downwards are good. The steeper it is dipping, the better.

When no substorm is active, you will see a summary of the last three substorms.

IMF/Bz also important!

Lots of scary numbers in this panel, so what do they all mean? Well first of all let's try and give you a clue why the IMF matters using an analogy.

Think of the IMF as being like the dial that controls the rings on your cooker hob. Turn it up, more power goes in, gets hotter. But it is more like an electric hob, so turn it up or down and it takes a while to respond. Turn it off and it takes a long time to cool down.

When the IMF is good more power is going into the substorm, making the aurora burn brighter. Turn it off and the substorm gradually fades away.

The app shows the figures in three rows for 'past', 'now' and 'next'. Each row is an analysis of a 30 minute time window in the IMF. What is happening in the window that is arriving at Earth now. What happened in the previous 30 minute window and what is to come in the next window that will hit the Earth. The three rows let you see at a glance whether conditions are improving or deteriorating.

To keep things simple, we'll go with negative Bz is good and positive Bz is bad. In reality it is more complicated than that but we'll stick with that for now to make it easier for you to understand. Making the Bz more negative is like turning up the dial on your hob, more power going in.

In any 30 minute window imagine that dial is being constantly turned up and down. What the app is showing you is what percentage of the time it was 'on' (negative) for, how much power was going in when it was on and how much energy went in overall.

Solar Wind

The speed and density of the solar wind don't directly matter that much for aurora-hunting. They just tell us whether the Earth is passing through a stream of particles from a coronal hole (CH) or a coronal mass ejection (CME). It is the IMF that the solar wind carries that is more important. Many of the best substorms occur in the turbulence called a 'stream interface' when the Earth is passing between low and high speed particle streams.

Solar Flares

Solar flares are eruptions from sunspots that can propel streams of particles called CMEs towards the Earth. These take a few days to reach Earth and, when they arrive, can trigger strong substorms. Most flares don't produce CMEs and most CMEs miss the Earth, so the best the figures in this panel can do is get our hopes up!

Twilight Times

You need to know when it is dark enough to see auroras, so the app has all of the times that you need for aurora-hunting.

There is nowhere else on the internet that gives you the sunset, twilight and moon times for tonight, rather than 'today', which is essential for aurora-hunting. It is the only app that tells you when the twilight ends tonight and starts again tomorrow morning. It tells you precisely when it will be dark where you are tonight.

Looking ahead for a holiday?

You need to use the long-range forecast! This is the most accurate long-range forecast that you will find anywhere. Other long-range forecasts are based either on guesswork or effects felt at a satellite that is a million miles away from Earth. This long-range forecast is calculated from actual substorms that directly affected us and when those substorms are most likely to recur again.

You have to be a bit flexible with long-range predictions. If the app says it will occur on say 5th/6th you might find it actually happens on 4th/5th or 6/7th. Don't just book a single night. Book the night before and the night after too to make sure you have it covered.

There's a simple reason for this. The rotation period of the sun is 27.5 days and it is the half a day that scuppers us. It means that on the next rotation a particle stream that caused a strong substorm at night is going to arrive in the day, so the substorm might happen a night earlier or a night later.

The coronal hole that produced the particle stream may shrink before the next rotation but it might also have got bigger. It is not unusual for a coronal hole to stay open for several months producing regular auroras on each rotation.

For nights that look promising the app tells you what the moon and twilight situation will be. If you can avoid it, you don't want to book a night when the moon is bad for auroras.

I don't have a phone!

If you don't have a phone just use the app like a web-site on any desktop PC or laptop. Use the Chrome browser. Enable alerts and just leave it permanently running in a tab whenever you are using the computer. You will get the alerts popping up in the bottom corner of your screen and can use the expansion alarm to let you know when an aurora is kicking off.

I don't have any mobile signal!

The app will switch to use wi-fi when you do not have a mobile signal. It will work perfectly over the wi-fi in your house, so you can use it whether you are out on an aurora hunt or sitting at home waiting for it to kick off.

If you lose your signal on an android phone while out hunting auroras, the app will have stored all the essential information on your phone, so you can still use it. You can also make aurora sighting reports while your phone is offline and they will automatically be sent out as soon as you get a signal again.

Tell me about the alerts

The app will send you alerts if you enable them on your Android device or in the Chrome web browser on windows desktops and laptops.

There are two kinds of alert.

The 'manual' alerts are those that I send out when I have actually photographed the aurora, so it is definitely confirmed that we have an active aurora.

The 'automatic' alerts are sent out automatically by the app at important points in the development of the substorm. These are:

  • Onset - An aurora is just starting to kick off.
  • Yellow - Strong enough for aurora in Northern Scotland, Iceland & Southern Scandinavia and above.
  • Orange - Strong enough for Southern Scotland, Northern England & Northern Ireland, Denmark, Lithunaia and above.
  • Red - Strong enough for anywhere in the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Poland and above.
  • Major, Severe, Extreme - Exceptional strong activity occurring and more intense auroras likely over Europe.

You have to be realistic with alerts. If it is cloudy, you won't see anything. Even a bit of haze might kill it. Moon can kill it. Light pollution kills it.

If you are lucky enough to live in Northern Scotland, Iceland or Southern Scandinavia then you should be heading out with your camera as soon as you get the onset alert and by the time the red alert goes out the aurora will be amazing. Even on the onset alert only, you'll be in with a chance of some aurora.

However, if you live further south then you need to treat onset and yellow as pre-warnings, get your camera ready, put your coat on, maybe even jump in the car if you have a journey to your viewing point. The orange and red might not happen. You have to take a gamble and eventually you will get lucky. If you do get a red alert, go for it!

You can get alerts from the app on your iPhone but you have to be a bit devious and get them via Twitter.

Install the Twitter App and follow @SkyeAuroras. Click the cog wheel and turn on notifications.

I really want to get an aurora!

A lot of people do and, because the alerts on my app are free, lots of people subscribe to them, just because it doesn't cost them anything. Many of them quickly lose interest when they realise that catching auroras means standing outside on cold, dark nights at stupid o'clock.

What the app does to counteract this, and help those who are serious about aurora-hunting, is to prioritise the alerts.

If you use the app regularly, every day, submit live reports and enter your proper name/location into the aurora reporters box the app will know that you are serious. It will automatically put you at the top of the queue for alerts.

If you never use the app or interact with it or enter junk in the aurora reporters box you will go to the back of the queue for alerts and eventually stop being sent them at all.

What's Expansion Alarm?

The expansion alarm is a loud beeping that the app will make when a substorm goes into its expansion phase. It is intended for use on any desktop PC, any laptop or non-Android tablets. Let's explain how I use it and why I created it...

Before the Glendale App existed, to find out when a substorm was going into its expansion phase we had to sit constantly watching a graph on the computer called the 'stackplot'. When the stackplot dipped, we were game on. However, this meant constantly sitting in front of the computer all night watching the graph. You could guarantee that the moment you went off to watch something on telly, or dozed off on the sofa, the aurora would kick off.

I have a desktop PC in my sitting room, so nowadays I just leave the app permanently running in the Chrome browser, switch off the screen-saver and power-saver on the computer and go off to do other things. I can watch the telly, have a nap on the sofa, relax and as soon as the aurora kicks off the 'puter starts beeping its head off and lets me know about it.

Even better, the app gets the data ahead of the Stackplot graphs, so the 'puter is bleeping before the graphs have even started to dip!

The expansion alarm works a bit like your 'getty-uppy' alarm clock. When it goes off, there's a 'pause' button you can press that works like the 'snooze' button. When you click 'pause', the expansion alarm will stop bleeping until there is another surge in activity.

Will it work in Iceland or Scandinavia?

The app will automatically switch into Iceland-mode or Scandinavia-mode as soon as you step off the aeroplane. It will provide alerts exactly as it does in the UK version but, because of your closer proximity to the aurora, it will most likely be visible to the naked eye on the yellow alert and will be excellent by eye by the red alert.

It is important that you step outside and look at the sky, or take a photo, as soon as the alert is issued. The most vivid, intense displays usually occur within minutes of the alerts being issued, so you need to react quickly. If you see a big red or orange arrow pointing downwards in the Substorm panel on the app, you need to go outside and look at the sky, as this in when the aurora becomes most active.

If you are using the app in the UK but want to view the Iceland/Scandinavian sightings, swipe left or right on the map to toggle between countries.

I have been working with Caroline Weir of Aurora Iceland to develop the Iceland version of the app. Caroline has been conducting research in Iceland that mirrors my own work here in the UK and, as a result of our collaboration, this app is the only accurate one for Iceland.

Caroline's Aurora Iceland web-site has essential advice on aurora-hunting in Iceland and I recommend that you read it before your visit. You should also follow her facebook page Aurora Iceland Facebook to see her amazing photos.

Guidelines for Reporting

  • If you click the wrong button by mistake, press the correct button immediately.
  • Do not click 'nothing' when your northern horizon is cloudy. 'Nothing' means the sky is clear and there is no aurora on your photos, i.e you are confirming that there is definitely no aurora.
  • Whilst you are still getting aurora on camera, keep clicking the 'aurora' button periodically, especially if it escalates.
  • In the UK or similar latitudes, do not click the 'aurora' button if you are only using your naked eyes.
  • If you abuse the 'full name' or 'location' fields you will be blocked from the app.

Getting the best out of the App

  1. The app will tell you in advance whether aurora is likely tonight.
  2. The app will be firming up its forecast for tonight by late afternoon, so starting checking it periodically.
  3. Make sure you check the app before dark in case it is telling you that aurora is likely as soon as it gets dark.
  4. Once it gets dark, the app will start sending the push alerts and triggering the Expansion Alarm as soon as anything happens but keep checking it periodically.
  5. Make sure that you check the app last thing before you go to bed in case it is telling you that activity is starting.
  6. Check the app when you wake up in the morning to see whether you missed anything.
  7. If you use a PC or laptop often then keep the app running permanently in a tab in the Chrome browser, enable alerts and expansion alarm and you will get all the popups and beeps when anything happens.
  8. Make sure you have the app on your phone with alerts enabled (Android) or via Twitter (iOS).

©Andy Stables