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Biggest solar flare since 2019 erupted today along with more radio blackouts

On Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at approximately 12:51 PM ET, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported widespread radio blackouts across North America due to a powerful solar flare.

This particular solar flare, classified as an X8.8, is the strongest recorded in the current solar cycle, which began in December of 2019.

Sunspot AR 3664 responsible for recent solar activity

The solar flare originated from sunspot AR 3664, which has been actively bombarding Earth with energized particles over the past few days.

This sunspot has grown immensely and is now bigger than the diameter of 17 Earths — a size comparable to the one responsible for the historic 1859 Carrington event, which caused telegraph stations to catch fire and disrupted global communications.

Dr. Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist, told, “As for the big X-flare, it’s the biggest of the cycle thus far. It would have been our first R4-level radio blackout, but it was partially blocked by the sun.”

Solar maximum phase and potential impacts

The Sun is currently in the solar maximum phase of Solar Cycle 25, which started in mid-December 2019.

Dr. Skov suggests that this cycle may have two peaks, similar to the previous one, and only time will tell if we have passed the peak of the solar maximum.

Subatomic debris from solar flares, consisting of electrons and protons, can disrupt satellite communications, pose radiation hazards for astronauts, and interfere with power grids on the ground.

NOAA had predicted a 60 percent chance of a radiation storm occurring on Tuesday.

Geomagnetic storms and the Parker Spiral

Charged particles from solar flares can become caught in the magnetic fields that emanate from the sun, known as the Parker Spiral.

As the sun rotates, these magnetic fields bend, creating a spiral structure that can guide the particles back to Earth, even when they would have otherwise missed our planet.

Impacts on agriculture and the aurora borealis

Following the solar storm on Friday, May 10, 2024, farmers in the American Midwest experienced disruptions to their GPS equipment, which is crucial for precise crop planting and reducing errors like overlapping seed beds or gaps of unused soil.

The solar activity also brought stunning displays of the Northern Lights across the world, with millions of Americans from South Carolina to Texas to California witnessing the natural light show.

Forecast and expectations

Solar activity is expected to remain at high levels due to M-class flare activity, with the potential for minor to moderate radio blackouts (R1-2).

The greater than 10 MeV proton flux is expected to remain at S1 (Minor) solar radiation storm levels over most of May 14, with a continued chance of S2 (Moderate) levels.

An enhanced solar wind environment with CME influences from recent filament eruptions and a weak positive polarity coronal hole high-speed stream (CH HSS) are anticipated for May 14-15, with a return to quieter conditions expected on May 16.

G1-2 (Minor-Moderate) geomagnetic storming is likely on May 14 due to the positive polarity CH HSS and possible CME effects, with G1 (Minor) geomagnetic storming likely from any glancing effects from the filament eruption and the aforementioned CME from AR 3664.

Understanding geomagnetic solar storms

Geomagnetic storms are disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the interaction between the solar wind and the planet’s magnetosphere. These storms can have significant impacts on technology, infrastructure, and even human health.

Causes of geomagnetic storms

Geomagnetic storms typically originate from the Sun. They are caused by two main phenomena:

  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs): Massive bursts of plasma and magnetic fields ejected from the Sun’s surface.
  • Solar FlaresIntense eruptions of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun’s surface.

When these events occur, they send charged particles streaming towards Earth at high speeds, which can take anywhere from one to five days to reach our planet.

Effects on Earth’s magnetic field

As the charged particles from CMEs and solar flares reach Earth, they interact with the planet’s magnetic field. This interaction causes the magnetic field lines to become distorted and compressed, leading to fluctuations in the strength and direction of the magnetic field.

Impacts on technology and infrastructure

Geomagnetic storms can have significant impacts on various aspects of modern technology and infrastructure:

  • Power Grids: Strong geomagnetic storms can induce currents in power lines, causing transformers to overheat and potentially leading to widespread power outages.
  • Satellite Communications: Charged particles can damage satellite electronics and disrupt communication signals.
  • GPS and Navigation Systems: Geomagnetic disturbances can interfere with the accuracy of GPS and other navigation systems.
  • Radio Communications: Storms can disrupt radio signals, affecting communication systems that rely on HF, VHF, and UHF bands.

Aurora formation

One of the most visually striking effects of geomagnetic storms is the formation of auroras, also known as the Northern and Southern Lights.

As charged particles collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere, they excite oxygen and nitrogen atoms, causing them to emit light in various colors.

Monitoring and forecasting

Scientists continuously monitor the Sun’s activity and use various instruments to detect and measure CMEs and solar flares.

This data helps them forecast the timing and intensity of geomagnetic storms, allowing for better preparedness and mitigation of potential impacts.

Historical geomagnetic storms

Some of the most notable geomagnetic storms in history include:

  • The Carrington Event (1859): The most powerful geomagnetic storm on record, which caused widespread telegraph system failures and auroras visible as far south as the Caribbean.
  • The Halloween Storms (2003): A series of powerful geomagnetic storms that caused power outages in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa.
  • The Quebec Blackout (1989): A geomagnetic storm that caused a massive power outage affecting millions of people in Quebec, Canada.

Understanding geomagnetic storms is crucial for protecting our technology-dependent world and mitigating the potential risks associated with these powerful space weather events.

Stay tuned to and the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) for updates.


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