Hear the sounds of space weather as Cambridge artist turns British Antarctic Survey data into album
When artist Diana Scarborough first heard the haunting sounds collected by the Halley VI Research Station in Antarctica, she was intrigued.
The noises came from the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey station’s Very Low Frequency receiver, which picks up radio waves made by the Earth. The BAS scientists use the data to investigate space weather storms.
But the crackling, clicks, whooshes and twittering like birdsong from radio waves generated by lightning and geomagnetic storms inspired Diana to use them in a different way – for a musical project.
She said: “ I just had an emotional response to the sounds when I first heard them. I was really intrigued. The sounds were in real time and hadn’t been changed and distorted and it was like making the invisible visible. I could imagine researchers every day hearing these sounds in the Antarctic.
“I just remember closing my eyes and thinking this was the Earth and space weather and here it is in Antarctica, which is fragile, and why haven’t I heard of it before. These sounds are so immersive and have travelled from outer space, and why don’t we know about them? I remember thinking they are beautiful and odd. It made me stop and take stock.”
Diana, from Cambridge, put a track of the noises to a video of visuals she had created and showed them to scientist Nigel Meredith at the British Antarctic Survey.
“The response from Nigel was, ‘Oh wow!’ And that was the start of it.”
Together with an Australian composer, Kim Cunio, Diana and Nigel have collaborated to create an album, Aurora Musicalis, as part of the ‘Sounds of Space’ project, which was first performed at the Cambridge Science Festival.
The natural radio ‘sounds’ of the planet are accompanied by original piano music by composer Kim Cunio of the Australian National University, with image processing by Cambridge-based artist-engineer Diana.
Diana said: “This development of Aurora Musicalis happened between Kim coming here and me going to Australia in 2019. When Kim was over here we discussed imagining you were in Antarctica for a day.
“Nigel picked a day of recordings and Kim came up with the conceptual idea that the composer had a day in Antarctica and he composed around that using his grand piano.
“I did the visuals for it. We did a couple of tracks from the album at a show in Eddington before the album was launched.
“And then Covid happened and we ended up launching the album on Bandcamp. We agreed to give to the world Aurora Musicalis because of what was happening.”
She says the album is already generating a great response: “I think people take different things from it. I would like people to stop and get lost in the sounds and think about our planet and how fragile it is and about all the destruction, the plastics, the melting of the ice that is impacting Antarctica.
“People have found that they work really well with this music in the background.
“We’re now planning another album, which starts off with the sounds of air escaping from an ancient ice core and moves to other sounds picked up in Antarctica and then its sounds of space weather picked up from a satellite. Conceptually it will be a journey from earth to the stars.
“I want people to look back and think Earth is pretty special. Let’s do something about looking after it.”
Nigel Meredith, space weather research scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, said: “The project started out as a show where I gave a talk and then Kim’s music would play over Diana’s film and we would have a dancer interpreting the music live.
“That had a great response and definitely some people were really wowed by it. Little moments when you know someone has been mind-blown by listening to the sounds and hearing what they were – that makes it all worth it.”
At the show, Nigel explained that the Earth naturally produces a variety of radio waves, generated by lightning activity and geomagnetic storms driven by the sun.
When the radio waves are turned into audible sounds they are at the lower end of the spectrum.
The BAS uses these waves to investigate the science of space weather storms, to help understand potential space weather impacts on the climate system, and for lightning detection.
Nigel said: “We are trying to talk to people about what we are doing in a different way and listening to the sounds it makes our work accessible. Also, just from a purely artistic point of view, I think the sounds are amazing and I think the music Kim put together is so ambient and it works really well with the sounds. It is beautiful to sit back and relax to.
“There are different types of sounds. For example, you hear a lot of crackling and that’s lightning. Lightning is going on all over the planet all the time and every time there is a strike, a burst of radio energy goes out.
“The research station at Halley typically picks up lightning from the Amazon and Congo basins and they are both over 8,000km away, so the radio waves have travelled from these distant locations before being picked up by our receiver.
“These waves travel close to the Earth but some of the energy from lightning also leaks out from the atmosphere. The Earth has a big magnetic field and waves can be guided by this field and travel along a magnetic field line, which might be a distance of four times the radius of the Earth, right out into space, and then be guided back along the same field line, and it can then be received.
“Because higher frequencies travel faster than lower frequencies, what initially started as a click actually comes back as a musical tone like a whistling tone.
“The other major sounds we hear come from waves generated in space called chorus waves. Sometimes they can resemble the twittering of birds in the dawn chorus, you get all kinds of sounds.
“They are never exactly the same.
“Sometimes it’s a real symphony of sounds so we tried to choose a day like that for Aurora Musicalis."
I would like people to stop and get lost in the sounds and think about how fragile our planet is
The ‘space weather’ noises on the album are all taken from a single day, sampled once every 15 minutes.
The team describes Aurora Musicalis as “a soundscape drawn from our most mysterious continent, partly a response to the exquisite ‘sounds’ derived from the Very Low Frequency receiver at Halley Research Station. It is partly an imagining of what it would be like to stay at the Halley station with a grand piano, in this case to listen to a day of the ‘sounds’ recorded in meticulous time lapse at the Halley station. It is more than this though. Aurora Musicalis expresses the yearning for all of us who will never get to Antarctica who still want to have a direct experience of this place.”
In spring this year the trio are planning another album, this time featuring sounds from Antarctic ice, earth sounds, radio wave noises collected from Jupiter and Saturn, a comet, pulsars and even black holes.
The Aurora Musicalis album can be downloaded here for free: https://soundsofspaceproject.bandcamp.com/album/aurora-musicalis.