A sunspot pointing towards Earth has the potential to cause solar flares, but experts told USA TODAY it is far from uncommon and has eased concerns about how the flares would affect the Blue Planet.
Active Region 3038, or AR3038, has been growing over the past week, said Rob Steenburgh, interim leader of the Office of Space Weather Prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“That’s what sunspots do,” he said. “Over time, they usually grow. They go through stages and then decay.”
Sunspots appear darker because they are cooler than other parts of the sun’s surface, according to NASA. Sunspots are cooler because they form where strong magnetic fields prevent the sun’s heat from reaching their surface.
“I think the easiest way to put it is that sunspots are regions of magnetic activity,” Steenburgh said.
Solar flares, which typically arise from sunspots, are “a sudden burst of energy caused by entanglement, crossing over, or rearrangement of magnetic field lines near sunspots,” NASA said.
“You can think of it as twisting rubber bands,” Steenburgh said. “If you have a pair of rubber bands twisting around your finger, they eventually get twisted too much and break. The difference with magnetic fields is that they reconnect. And when they reconnect, that’s where an explosion is generated.”
The larger and more complex a sunspot becomes, the greater the likelihood of solar flares, Steenburgh said.
The sunspot has doubled in size each day for the past three days and is about 2.5 times the size of Earth, said C. Alex Young, associate director of science in the Heliophysical Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, for email.
Young said the sunspot is producing small solar flares but “does not have the complexity of larger flares”. There is a 30% chance that the sunspot will produce medium-sized eruptions and a 10% chance that it will create large eruptions, he said.
W. Dean Pesnell, project scientist for the Solar Dynamics Observatory, said the sunspot is an “active region of modest size” that “has not grown abnormally fast and is still somewhat small in area.”
“AR 3038 is exactly the kind of active region that we would expect at this point in the solar cycle,” he said.
Andrés Muñoz-Jaramillo, chief scientist at the SouthWest Research Institute in San Antonio, said the sunspot is nothing for people on Earth to worry about.
“I want to emphasize that there is no need to panic,” he said. “They happen all the time, and we’re prepared and doing everything we can to predict and mitigate their effects. For most of us, we don’t need to lose sleep over it.”
Solar flares have different levels, Muñoz-Jaramillo said. The smallest are the A-class flares, followed by the B, C, M, and X flares at the highest strength. Within each letter class there is a finer scale using numbers, and higher numbers denote more intensity.
C eruptions are too weak to visibly affect Earth, Muñoz-Jaramillo said. More intense M eruptions can disrupt radio communication at Earth’s poles. X flares can disrupt satellites, communication systems and electrical grids and, at worst, cause electricity shortages and power outages.
Low-intensity solar flares are quite common; X flares are less, Steenburgh said. In a single solar cycle, about 11 years, there are typically around 2,000 M1 flares, around 175 X1 flares, and around eight X10 flares, he said. For the largest solar flares at X20 or above, there is less than one per cycle. This solar cycle started in December 2019.
Sunspot AR3038 caused C-bursts, Steenburgh said. While there have been no M or X eruptions in this area, he said there is potential for more intense eruptions next week.
Sun releases moderate solar flare
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