Borok Geophysical Observatory of the Schmidt Institute of Physics of the Earth of the Russian Academy of Sciences is a huge snow-covered space in the north of Yaroslavl Region, where there are no noisy highways and large settlements. This is a unique place where they study the magnetic properties of our planet and life itself as a wave phenomenon. The observatory director, Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences Sergey Vasilyevich Anisimov tells us about its history and research. 

Sergey Vasilyevich, tell us about the history of your geophysical observatory.  Why was this particular place chosen, remote from megacities? 

The Borok Geophysical Observatory is currently a branch of the Institute of Physics of the Earth of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Observatory is a structural unit that primarily conducts experimental work in the field of geophysics. Geophysics is generally an experimental science. The emergence of the Borok Geophysical Observatory is associated with the International Geophysical Year. On December 9, 1955, an order was issued by the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences, which emphasized the need to create the Borok magnetic station in the north of Yaroslavl Region.

Why did this place in an unremarkable region from the viewpoint of science suddenly become the basis for the development of experimental geophysics? The thing is, one of the important directions of the International Geophysical Year was the organization of a network of geomagnetic observations. Even today, with sufficiently sensitive equipment, it is difficult to find a place suitable for conducting geomagnetic observations. And in those years, it was not easy at all, because the level of electromagnetic interference was high in the area of large cities, and the sensitivity level of equipment for recording useful signals was relatively low. Moscow Region was investigated in detail for the possibility of conducting geomagnetic observations: the level of interference, for example, from electric trains, greatly influenced their results, including the registration of telluric currents, which are a consequence of the dynamics of the geomagnetic field. 

The names of our founders are associated with the choice of this particular area. First of all, this is V. A. Troitskaya, a world-famous geophysicist, who was elected president of the IAGA (International Association of Geomagnetism and Aeronomy) and was a secretary of the International Geophysical Committee of the USSR Academy of Sciences. At that time, I. D. Papanin had already worked in Borok on the creation of a biological station, which later turned into the Papanin Institute for Biology of Inland Waters of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Apparently, discussing at meetings, and possibly in the corridors, the implementation of the IGY program, Ivan Dmitrievich proposed to conduct a trial recording around the already existing Borok biological station in Yaroslavl Region. 

Valeria Alekseevna responded to this proposal. Soon the first expedition to these regions took place from Moscow, from the Institute of Physics of the Earth, from Bolshaya Gruzinskaya. A passenger train ran to the Shestikhino railway station. And then with the equipment, it was necessary to somehow get to Borok, which is about 20 km. The country road was, essentially, impassable. We got there by water-jet boat down the Sutka River. We established a field geophysical observation point and included the first trial recordings of telluric currents. To do this, two electrodes were buried in the ground to a depth of about 1 m and the potential difference between them was measured using sensitive galvanometers. So, the testing was carried out, and the place turned out to be quite favorable. The nearest industrial center — the city of Rybinsk – was 40 km away from Borok. Railway transport was not electrified and practically did not interfere. This was the starting point for the decision to build here the country’s first magnetic station for conducting geomagnetic observations in the middle latitudes of the European part of Russia.

And what do these observations give? What are they for? 

The Earth’s magnetic field is one of the most important geophysical fields that determine life on our planet. The Earth is under the influence of energetic particles, the sources of which are located on the Sun, as well as in near and far space. In addition, the activity of the Sun is important. If there was no magnetosphere — this magnetic shield, the Earth shell — then the solar wind would blow directly over the surface of the Earth, and life on it would be impossible. Magnetologists are somewhat similar to breeders who initially collect all the seeds that are on the planet, archive them strictly, and do not allow themselves even in moments of severe hardships, such as the famine in Leningrad during World War II, to eat even one grain.

Modern magnetology is the quantization and archiving of the state of the geomagnetic field for certain discrete time intervals. The Borok Geophysical Observatory was one of the first in Russia to join the Intermagnet network, we work in the international network of magnetic stations strictly according to the international protocol: we register, for example, with a frequency of 1 second, the magnitude of the magnetic field strength in the middle latitudes of the European part of Russia, record it in the database and strictly store it. We are driven by the clear need to register and observe the Earth’s magnetic field, which is due to the tasks of monitoring the state of the environment. The magnetic field is a component of the Earth’s environment, and our work is in demand to control the normal acceptable geophysical conditions of earthly existence.

There is a lot of talking and writing about the end of the world, connected, among other things, with the inversion of the magnetic field. Is there any threat of such a phenomenon? 

Inversion is a process of geological time scale in which human life is a small grain of sand. The time intervals of a calm geomagnetic field are estimated in dozens of millions of years. Therefore, even if such a phenomenon is possible, it will not be instantaneous from our point of view. We will see this in the registration of fields, and these will be some very slow processes that will tell us about the gradual change of the geomagnetic field.

But the magnetic field is not something constant, it is a changing quantity. And, as far as I know, say, during the Roman Empire, it was much higher than it is now. Do changes in the magnetic field somehow affect the fate of mankind, the course of history? 

The change in the magnetic field is just the tip of the iceberg. It is based, according to the modern idea of geomagnetic field generation from the viewpoint of the turbulent dynamo theory, on the processes occurring inside the Earth, in the liquid core, which is located between the inner solid core and the lithosphere. We see now, and this is an observational fact, that, for example, the North Pole is shifting. Nevertheless, we have not registered any extremely catastrophic phenomena that would accompany this movement. As for your question about the impact of such shifts on historical events – here we have little reliable observational data. Perhaps indirect evidence may be the temporary coincidences of geomagnetic field inversions with some serious changes in the biosphere, the disappearance and appearance of new biological species on the planet. Although I try to be careful in such assessments.

There has been a lot of talk about magnetic storms in recent years. Meteorologists even began to warn about this: another powerful magnetic storm is coming, and people who are weather-dependent need to take pills and take care in every possible way. What can you say about this? 

It just so happened that my scientific fate is directly connected with atmospheric electricity, which is considered by some as a kind of meteorological phenomenon. I look at it quite differently. This is a very interesting natural object. Why did nature suddenly need the electric field of the atmosphere? A wide range of answers is possible here: for example, to ensure the balance of water in nature between the atmosphere and the ocean. And a magnetic storm is primarily associated with the activity of the Sun. More specifically, this is the activity of those areas that are commonly called sunspots, and this activity consists in the fact that from the spot surface there is an emission of solar plasma, protons that move at a very high speed. Provided that the solar wind of increased density and speed interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere, a so-called magnetic storm occurs. This is because the Earth’s magnetic field begins to perform its protective function against this increased background, primarily radioactive radiation, physically caused by the solar wind. At the same time, the protective properties of this “screen” sometimes drop significantly – twice. Indeed, here we should expect an impact on the biosphere, on the entire terrestrial environment. 

But let’s look at the whole history of such an influence from the viewpoint of the geological time scale. When the Sun as a star began to produce the solar wind and the change in its flows associated with the activity of various areas of the solar wind, zones of sunspots formed on our luminary. As soon as the sunspots began to fall into the zone that allows them to influence the Earth’s magnetosphere through the solar wind, magnetic storms appeared on our planet. Imagine, on a geological time scale, we have always had so-called recurrent magnetic storms. All life on Earth, from the moment of the origin of life in the ocean to its coming ashore, was under the cyclical influence of magnetic storms.

Is it possible to assume that this was a necessary condition for the formation and development of life? 

At least, it should be said for sure that life on Earth developed and evolved in the conditions of magnetic storms, which are associated with the activity of sunspots on the Sun. They have always been there, they could shift on the Sun itself, but they did exist. 

I think that a normal healthy organism – the simplest or the most complex, such as a person – evolved, developed precisely in the presence of the effects of recurrent magnetic storms. Therefore, I believe that magnetic storms for us are a completely natural phenomenon, which we should not be afraid of. Magnetic storms have been, are, and will be. 

Interestingly, in the last two and a half years, solar activity has dropped significantly. If we rate geomagnetic activity on a ten-point scale, which is a consequence of solar activity, it turns out that we are at a level below average. Storms are very rare, and even then, quite weak. 

Recently, a lot of serious trials have been raining down on humanity. So, maybe this is just a consequence of the decrease in magnetic activity and the absence of magnetic storms? 

It is impossible to give an unambiguous answer here, and I do not want to speculate.

One thing is for sure: for a healthy, normally developing organism, such a component of the external environment as a magnetic storm is necessary. They should occur regularly in about a 27-day cycle, which is due to the manifestation of the periodicity of solar activity. If this is not the case, the body begins to fail, not understanding what is happening. This is a very complex biomedical, biophysical problem, the study of which can answer your question. 

Now a new direction has emerged — magnetic biology that studies the influence of the magnetic field on living systems at a deep physicobiological level. The observatory staff participates in research on magnetobiological topics together with scientists of the Papanin Institute for Biology of Inland Waters of the Russian Academy of Sciences, using original installations to compensate for the geomagnetic field and create artificial magnetic effects on biological objects.

But surely you won’t deny that there are weather-sensitive people? 

Perhaps, there are, and at one time I attributed weather sensitivity to changes in atmospheric pressure. In a sense, these are communicating vessels — external pressure affects internal pressure. Weather sensitivity is a phenomenon when a person loses a healthy adaptation to changes in meteorological conditions. It is possible that here lies a not fully defined parameter of weather sensitivity: there is no strict set of quantitative characteristics of what exactly and how a person has changed – pressure, pulse, or heart rate. There are no quantitative estimates here yet. And I have always insisted that such figures are science. If we are talking about a phenomenon, let’s characterize it quantitatively. If we cannot do this, it means that we do not yet have any scientific facts confirming the reliability of this or that phenomenon.

Sergey Vasilyevich, you often use the term “turbulence,” talking about it as an important physical phenomenon. What does it represent from your point of view, what prospects does its study open for science? 

I sometimes say that the physics of the future will largely be the science of turbulence and chaos. What is turbulence? What is chaos – the building material of order? Any movement of the real geophysical environment — for example, currents in the ocean, which form a giant conveyor belt that determines the climate on the planet, or the course of the Volga, the channel of which is located 2 km from our observatory – these are all turbulent currents. Studies of the turbulence of the geophysical environment are actively developing all over the world. Scientific centers are being created, especially in advanced universities in the US, where they deal with turbulence, including mathematical and laboratory modeling of turbulent processes of various spatial and temporal scales. 

The uniqueness of the research conducted at the Borok Geophysical Observatory lies in the fact that we are engaged in turbulent electrodynamics, studying the electrical state of the atmospheric boundary layer. The atmospheric boundary layer around the mid-latitude Borok Geophysical Observatory has a height of several hundred meters to one kilometer. The upper boundary of this layer can be represented as a kind of lid over the boiler, regulating the transfer of thermal energy from the Earth’s surface to the free atmosphere. This is an area that is very important for forming the weather and forecasting it. Recent work suggests that the influence of the underlying surface, the heterogeneity of this surface, and, consequently, the turbulence that will be generated by these inhomogeneities, affect the formation of weather conditions. At the same time, not only the natural environment but also the urban environment is heterogeneous, giving rise to turbulence at the boundary of the horizontal laminar flow. In any city where we live, we are surrounded by turbulent vortices that determine the transfer of heat and passive impurities.

The atmospheric boundary layer is an important link not only from a meteorological point of view but also from an electrodynamic point of view. In the global atmospheric electrical circuit — a closed distributed current loop formed by the lower layers of the ionosphere, the upper layers of the ocean, and the Earth’s crust – this is the area with the greatest electrical resistance, which determines the amount of current from the ionosphere to the Earth’s surface or water surface, to the oceans. The main natural ionizers of the atmosphere over the continents are alpha-, beta- and gamma-radiation of radioactive elements contained in the soil, radon isotopes coming from the Earth’s crust into the atmosphere, and products of their radioactive decay, as well as cosmic rays.

And here’s what is interesting. If we are talking about ionization, then we are talking about the size of the atomic level. If we are talking about a global electrical circuit, then we are talking about the Earth’s radius, and this is already 6.37 thousand km at least. And if we consider galactic cosmic rays as a source of ionization, then we must take into account the cosmic scale. We study all this scaling of geophysical processes – from atomic to galactic scales.

What else is unique about your geophysical observatory? 

The answer to this short question may be too long: everything we do here has elements of uniqueness. For example, to study the electricity of the atmospheric boundary layer, we have created an installation that is unmatched in the world. This is a hardware balloon platform containing a block of electrostatic search coil magnetometers for measuring the electric field strength, sensors of the electrical conductivity of the atmosphere, meteorological sensors, as well as a radonometer, and a device for measuring the concentration of aerosols. Data transmission and preprocessing systems are available. The tethered balloon, on which the hardware platform is attached, rises to a height of 500 m. The weight of the platform is about 25 kg, which seems to be a significant amount for balloon observations. During the day, the installation can work continuously, being fixed at a certain height. We can control the balloon, raise it, lower it, take measurements at different heights and take altitude profiles, study atmospheric electricity and turbulence. This is a completely unique piece of equipment. The research is carried out with the financial support of the Russian Science Foundation. The results of the observations have been published in leading foreign and domestic journals; the articles are publicly available. 

I read that the strange swirls in Van Gogh’s paintings are nothing more than the image of turbulent vortex flows. Supposedly, this can help physicists study turbulence. Is this true or someone’s fiction? 

I heard about it. I’m very interested in the work of Vincent Van Gogh. I know his biography, the stages of his life. I’ve been to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, leafing through and rereading books about him. People of this scale are in harmony with nature. He did not just see the world in his way — he also felt its movement, the changes of this world not in the usual scales for us such as “day-night” or “summer-winter,” but in others beyond the ordinary view. I was talking about the 1-second resolution of many of our measurements. And here a person shows similar abilities. Harmony means that not only the person feels nature, but also nature begins to give them something, opening up to them. Therefore, I often evaluate scientists precisely by what nature has revealed to them, what kind of opportunity it has given them. After all, our main goal is new knowledge about nature. 

Do you mean intuition in science?

You could say that. But intuition is only the first moment, a necessary condition, a direction. And will there still be enough natural intelligence, education, knowledge to understand and comprehend this object? And will nature itself let us take this knowledge? Maybe we still need to grow up to some knowledge about nature? I think we all still have a lot to do on this path. 

Interviewer: Natalia Leskova