Strong Solar Flare From A Gargantuan Sunspot May Be Just The Beginning Wafact

An X-class solar flare erupted from the sun on, appropriately, Sunday. The blast of highly charged electromagnetic energy peaked at 7:14 p.m. EDT, taking less than ten minutes to travel at the speed of light from the sun to impact Earth’s magnetic field.

The energetic collision caused radio outages for mariners, some pilots and short wave radio users. It’s also an indication more unrest is coming from our local star, which is ramping towards a period of heightened activity unlike anything seen in a generation.

Solar flares typically erupt from sunspots, which are huge, planet-sized magnetic disturbances on the surface of the sun. The sun goes through an 11-12 year cycle of sunspot activity, building towards a peak, or solar maximum, during which there is an increase in both sunspots and solar flares.

We are currently building towards the next expected peak sometime in the next year or two.

Sunday’s flare, estimated to be an X1.1 class flare — on the low end of the strongest class of flare — came from a giant sunspot region cataloged as AR3354, which has an area equivalent to about seven Earths.

The good news is that AR 3354 is about to rotate out of view, meaning we don’t have to worry about it flinging more flares or coronal mass ejections directly at us for a while. That is, if it doesn’t send us a big parting gift as it leaves.

“The combination of the region’s magnetic configuration and having already produced an X flare raised the chances for another X flare from 10 to 25 percent,” writes heliophysicist C. Alex Young and colleagues at EarthSky.

So far there has been no evidence of a coronal mass ejection from the huge sunspot, which is typically what gives us major geomagnetic storms and bright auroras.

The Sun Has Been Relatively Calm For Years

Solar flares can be plenty disruptive on their own, affecting not just short wave radio communications, but also GPS and posing a threat to the operation of satellites in orbit. The most extreme solar flares can damage the electrical grid and equipment on the ground as well.

We’re currently approaching the peak of solar cycle 25, based on a numbering system going back as long as scientists have been keeping track of the pattern since the mid-1700s. So far, we’ve already seen more X-class flares in this young solar cycle than we did in the entirety of solar cycle 24, which was unusually tame.

It appears this cycle and the upcoming solar maximum might be more akin to solar cycle 23, which peaked in late 2001, but generated a number of powerful X flares between 2001 and 2005.

In fact, four of the five most powerful solar flares recorded since 1976 came during that time period. Strong flares in 1989 and 2003 led to major power outages in Canada and Sweden, respectively.

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We’ve already seen some carnage from this current cycle when a relatively modest but long-duration storm of flares fried a batch of Starlink satellites in 2022.

It’s not exactly clear what the upcoming solar maximum holds for us, but something worth considering is that we haven’t seen a really dramatic display of flares in roughly twenty years. And over the past two decades we’ve become drastically more dependent on satellite communications and the global links they provide.

As of now, the thousands of satellites that keep us connected are sitting ducks for a massive solar storm and it’s unclear how much redundancy is built in to these systems, or if that would even help. When it comes to backups for the electrical grid, the news isn’t much better. If you’re preparation-minded, there’s never been a better time to consider some combination of solar panels, batteries and a generator.

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