Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics

Near-Earth plasma sheet azimuthal pressure gradient and associated auroral development soon before substorm onset



[1] The azimuthal plasma pressure gradient in the near-Earth plasma sheet makes crucial contributions to field-aligned current (FAC) formation. Numerical simulations and statistical observations have shown that a plasma pressure peak tends to build up in the premidnight region of the near-Earth plasma sheet during the substorm growth phase owing to enhanced magnetic drift. This leads to azimuthal pressure gradients in this region. The temporal variation of the azimuthal pressure gradient may provide an indication for the FAC variations associated with the substorm growth phase and may set up a plasma sheet precondition for the substorm onset being triggered near this region. We take advantage of two of the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) spacecraft separated azimuthally near the orbit apogee and investigate the azimuthal plasma pressure gradient before substorm onset in the R ∼10–12 RE region. Equatorial plasma pressure is estimated by removing the curvature force effect. Five events with the spacecraft footprints mapped very close to the aurora onset region were selected. These events show substantial duskward pressure gradient enhancement 1–5 min before onset. The onset arc, which results from enhanced energetic electron precipitation, was found to intensify simultaneously with the pressure gradient enhancement before onset breakup occurs. Since the energy and energy flux of precipitating electrons reflect the upward FAC strength, these results indicate that the duskward azimuthal pressure gradient enhancement is associated with enhanced upward FAC during the late growth phase and leads to the intensification of the onset auroral arc soon before it breaks up. It is possible that this pressure gradient enhancement may lead to ballooning mode instability and thus substorm onset along the intensifying arc.