We present SuperDARN radar observations of the nightside high-latitude ionospheric flow during two 6-hour intervals of quasi-steady northward interplanetary magnetic field (IMF). During both intervals (01:30–07:30 UT on 2 December and 21:00–03:00 UT on 14/15 December 1999), the solar wind and IMF remained relatively steady with Bz positive and By negative, such that the IMF clock angle was ~ - 50° to - 60°. Throughout both intervals the radar data clearly indicate the presence of a highly distorted By-dominated twin cell flow pattern, indicative of an open magnetosphere, which is confirmed by DMSP and auroral data. Estimates of the changes in open flux present during each interval indicate approximately balanced dayside and nightside reconnection at rates of ~ 30–35 kV over the full 6 h. However, strong bursts of flow with speeds of over ~ 1000 ms-1 are observed near magnetic midnight on time scales of ~ 1 h, which are associated with increases in the transpolar voltage. These are indicative of the net closure of open flux by recon-nection in the tail. During one large flow burst, the night-side reconnection rate is estimated to have been ~ 1.5 times the dayside rate, i.e. ~ 45–60 kV compared with ~ 30–40 kV. Magnetic bays, which would indicate the formation of a sub-storm current wedge, are not observed in association with these bursts. In addition, no low-latitude Pi2s or geostationary particle injections were observed, although some local, small amplitude Pi2-band (5–50 mHz) activity does accompany the bursts. Coincident measurements of the flow and of the low amplitude magnetic perturbations reveal nightside ionospheric conductances of no more than a few mho, indicative of little associated precipitation. Therefore, we suggest that the flow bursts are the ionospheric manifestation of bursty reconnection events occurring in the more distant geomagnetic tail. The main implication of these findings is that, under the circumstances examined here, the convection cycle is not equivalent to the usual substorm cycle that occurs for southward IMF.