Abstract. We study substorms from two perspectives, i.e., magnetosphere–ionosphere coupling across the auroral oval at dusk and at midnight magnetic local times. By this approach we monitor the activations/expansions of basic elements of the substorm current system (Bostrøm type I centered at midnight and Bostrøm type II maximizing at dawn and dusk) during the evolution of the substorm activity. Emphasis is placed on the R1 and R2 types of field-aligned current (FAC) coupling across the Harang reversal at dusk. We distinguish between two distinct activity levels in the substorm expansion phase, i.e., an initial transient phase and a persistent phase. These activities/phases are discussed in relation to polar cap convection which is continuously monitored by the polar cap north (PCN) index. The substorm activity we selected occurred during a long interval of continuously strong solar wind forcing at the interplanetary coronal mass ejection passage on 18 August 2003. The advantage of our scientific approach lies in the combination of (i) continuous ground observations of the ionospheric signatures within wide latitude ranges across the auroral oval at dusk and midnight by meridian chain magnetometer data, (ii) "snapshot" satellite (DMSP F13) observations of FAC/precipitation/ion drift profiles, and (iii) observations of current disruption/near-Earth magnetic field dipolarizations at geostationary altitude. Under the prevailing fortunate circumstances we are able to discriminate between the roles of the dayside and nightside sources of polar cap convection. For the nightside source we distinguish between the roles of inductive and potential electric fields in the two substages of the substorm expansion phase. According to our estimates the observed dipolarization rate (δ Bz/δt) and the inferred large spatial scales (in radial and azimuthal dimensions) of the dipolarization process in these strong substorm expansions may lead to 50–100 kV enhancements of the cross-polar-cap potential due to inductive electric field coupling.