Articles | Volume 26, issue 3
26 Mar 2008
 | 26 Mar 2008

Comparison of Birkeland current observations during two magnetic cloud events with MHD simulations

H. Korth, B. J. Anderson, J. G. Lyon, and M. Wiltberger

Abstract. Low altitude field-aligned current densities obtained from global magnetospheric simulations are compared with two-dimensional distributions of Birkeland currents at the topside ionosphere derived from magnetic field observations by the constellation of Iridium satellites. We present the analysis of two magnetic cloud events, 17–19 August 2003 and 19–21 March 2001, where the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) rotates slowly (~10°/h) to avoid time-aliasing in the magnetic perturbations used to calculate the Birkeland currents. In the August 2003 event the IMF rotates from southward to northward while maintaining a negative IMF By during much of the interval. During the March 2001 event the IMF direction varies from dawnward to southward to duskward. We find that the distributions of the Birkeland current densities in the simulations agree qualitatively with the observations for northward IMF. For southward IMF, the dayside Region-1 currents are reproduced in the simulation, but appear on average 5° further poleward of their observed location, while the nightside Region-1 currents and the Region-2 currents are largely under-represented. Comparison of the observed and simulated Birkeland current distributions, which are intimately related to the plasma drifts at the ionosphere, shows that the ionospheric convection pattern in the MHD model and its dependence on the IMF orientation is essentially correct. The Birkeland total currents in the simulations are about a factor of 2 larger than observed during southward IMF. For Bz>0 the disparity in the total current is reduced and the simulations for purely northward IMF agree with the observations to within 10%. The disparities in the magnitudes of the Birkeland currents between the observations and the simulation results are a combined effect of the simulation overestimating the ionospheric electric field and of the Iridium fits underestimating the magnetic perturbations. The marginal difference in the latitude resolution of the ionospheric grids in the simulations and the observations is shown to have only secondary effect on the magnitudes of the Birkeland currents. The electric potentials in the simulation for southward IMF periods are twice as large as those obtained from measurements of the plasma drift velocities by DMSP, implying that the reconnection rates in the simulation are too large.