A Birkeland current is a set of currents which flow along geomagnetic field lines connecting the Earth’s magnetosphere to the Earth’s high latitude ionosphere. In the Earth’s magnetosphere, the currents are driven by the solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field and by bulk motions of plasma through the magnetosphere (convection which is indirectly driven by the interplanetary environment). The strength of the Birkeland currents changes with activity in the magnetosphere (e.g. during substorms). Small scale variations in the upward current sheets (downward flowing electrons) accelerate magnetospheric electrons which, when they reach the upper atmosphere, create the Aurora Borealis and Australis. In the high latitude ionosphere (or auroral zones), the Birkeland currents close through the region of the auroral electrojet, which flows perpendicular to the local magnetic field in the ionosphere. The Birkeland currents occur in two pairs of field-aligned current sheets. One pair extends from noon through the dusk sector to the midnight sector. The other pair extends from noon through the dawn sector to the midnight sector. The sheet on the high latitude side of the auroral zone is referred to as the Region 1 current sheet and the sheet on the low latitude side is referred to as the Region 2 current sheet.
The currents were predicted in 1908 by Norwegian explorer and physicist Kristian Birkeland, who undertook expeditions beyond the Arctic Circle to study the aurora. He rediscovered, using simple magnetic field measurement instruments, that when the aurora appeared the needles of magnetometers changed direction, confirming the findings of Anders Celsius and assistant Olof Hjorter more than a century before. This could only imply that currents were flowing in the atmosphere above. He theorized that somehow the Sun emitted a cathode ray, and corpuscles from what is now known as a solar wind entered the Earth’s magnetic field and created currents, thereby creating the aurora. This view was scorned by other researchers, but in 1967 a satellite, launched into the auroral region, showed that the currents posited by Birkeland existed. In honour of him and his theory these currents are named Birkeland currents. A good description of the discoveries by Birkeland is given in the book by Lucy Jago.
Professor Emeritus of the Alfvén Laboratory in Sweden, Carl-Gunne Fälthammar wrote: “A reason why Birkeland currents are particularly interesting is that, in the plasma forced to carry them, they cause a number of plasma physical processes to occur (waves, instabilities, fine structure formation). These in turn lead to consequences such as acceleration of charged particles, both positive and negative, and element separation (such as preferential ejection of oxygen ions). Both of these classes of phenomena should have a general astrophysical interest far beyond that of understanding the space environment of our own Earth.”