A massive X-class flare erupted from the Sun yesterday, sending a burst of energy towards Earth which lead to a strong radio blackout. In addition to that eruption, an M-class flare erupted today; experts with the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) say more M-class fares are likely today with the chance of additional X-class flares. Solar flares can lead to significant disruption to life on Earth, with high-end X-class events having the best odds of doing so.
Solar flares are giant explosions on the Sun that send energy, light and high speed particles into space. These flares are often associated with solar magnetic storms known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Solar flares are rated on a five letter scale: A, B, C, M, and X. Similar to the Richter scale used for earthquakes, each letter reflects a 10-fold increase in energy output from the sun. As such, an X class flare is 10 times stronger than an M class flare and 100 times stronger than a C class flare. In addition to classifying solar flares with a letter, there is an accompanying number that provides additional clarity on how potent a flare is on a scale of 1 to 9.
Yesterday’s flare was classed at X 1.1. According to the SWPC, the flare erupted from just beyond the southeast limb of the visible solar disk. During the peak of the flare, high frequency communication may have been prone to contact loss over a large part of the Atlantic Ocean, portions of eastern South America, western Africa, and western Europe.
Today, an area on the sun referred to as “Region 3004” produced a M 5.7 flare at 4:59am ET. According to the SWPC, Region 3004 is the most notable sunspot group currently present on the visible solar disk and it exhibited some additional growth overnight. Another M-class flare (M5.3) occurred from just beyond the southeast limb on 3 May at 8:19pm ET.
“Additional M-class flares remain likely, with a chance of X-class activity, due primarily to the combined flare probabilities of Region 3004 and the as yet, unidentified source region of M and X-class flare events from the southeast limb,” said the SWPC in a statement about the intense solar activity from within the last 24 hours.
According to NASA, the biggest X-class flares are by far the largest explosions in the solar system. Loops tens of times the size of Earth leap up off the sun’s surface when the sun’s magnetic fields cross over each other and reconnect. In the biggest events, this reconnection process can produce as much energy as a billion hydrogen bombs. If they’re directed at Earth, such flares and associated CMEs can create long lasting radiation storms that can harm satellites, communications systems, and even ground-based technologies and power grids.
While these solar events can help illuminate the sky with stunning aurora and threaten spacecraft like the SpaceX satellites and International Space Station (ISS) above the Earth, they can also do considerable harm to electronics, electrical grids, and satellite and radio communications on Earth.
One such destructive incident was a solar event which occurred on September 1-2 in 1859. Also known as the “Carrington Event”, this event unfolded as powerful geomagnetic storm struck Earth during Solar Cycle 10. A CME hit the Earth and induced the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so intense it created extremely bright, vivid aurora throughout the planet: people in California thought the sun rose early, people in the northeastern U.S. could read a newspaper at night from the aurora’s bright light, and people as far south as Hawaii and south-central Mexico could see the aurora in the sky.
The event severely damaged the limited electrical and communication lines that existed at that time; telegraph systems around the world failed, with some telegraph operators reporting they received electric shocks.
A June 2013 study by Lloyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the U.S. showed that if the Carrington event happened in modern times, damages in the U.S. could exceed $2.6 trillion, roughly 15% of the nation’s annual GDP.
Scientists believe that another Carrington-like event will occur, but not sure when it’ll happen. Scientists believe we are now in a period of increasing solar storm activity which is forecast to peak in 2025. While an increase in solar cycle sunspots was expected in this new cycle, the amount of activity has exceeded forecasts, especially in 2021 and so far in 2022. Experts believe the cycle will peak-out around 2025, with even more space weather events unfolding between now and then. It is possible a Carrington-like event could happen at anytime, although odds could be highest during the peak cycle around 2025.
Some scientists believe a larger space weather event could be extremely disruptive on earth in modern times, shutting down the electrical grid and bringing an end to the internet for a month or longer. A paper written last September by University of California assistant professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, entitled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse”, describes the threats the sun pose to the global web of computers and the communications between them. “In this paper, we investigate the impact of solar superstorms that can potentially cause large-scale Internet outages covering the entire globe and lasting several months,” the author wrote.
Until that happens, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center continues to keep an eye out for possible dangers from the Sun.
NOAA forecasters analyze a variety of solar data from spacecraft to determine what impacts a geomagnetic storm could produce. If Earth is experiencing the effects of a coronal hole and a coronal mass ejection is forecasted to impact Earth, the combined effects could result in a more significant impact and more intense geomagnetic storming. Analyzing data from the DSCOVER and ACE satellite is one way forecasters can tell when the enhanced solar wind from a coronal hole is about to arrive at Earth. A few things they look for in the data to determine when the enhanced solar wind is arriving at Earth:
• Solar wind speed increases
• Temperature increases
• Particle density decreases
• Interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) strength increases
While typically known for their weather forecasts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Weather Service (NWS) is also responsible for “space weather.” While there are private companies and other agencies that monitor and forecast space weather, the official source for alerts and warnings of the space environment is the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). The SWPC is located in Boulder, Colorado and is a service center of the NWS, which is part of NOAA. The Space Weather Prediction Center is also one of nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) as they monitor current space weather activity 24/7, 365 days a year.