- A NASA scientist said that a sunspot, called AR3038, has doubled in size every day over the past three days. As sunspots grow, the chance of solar flares increases.
- Solar flares can disrupt wireless communications and Earth’s power grids. But experts told USA TODAY that this sunspot is unlikely to cause extreme flares.
- Experts are reassured that the flares have little effect on most people on Earth, saying “don’t panic.”
Sunspots that point to Earth have the potential to cause solar flares, but experts tell USA TODAY that they are far from unusual and allay concerns about how the flares might affect the blue planet.
Active Area 3038, or AR3038, has seen growth over the past week, said Rob Steenberg, acting chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Space Weather Forecasting. The size and growth rate of sunspots are fairly normal, he said.
“That’s what sunspots do,” he said. “Over time, in general, it will grow. It goes through phases, and then degrades.”
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What are sunspots and solar flares?
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 heat within the Sun from reaching its surface.
“I think the easiest way to put it is that sunspots are regions of magnetic activity,” Steenberg said.
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Solar flares, which typically appear from sunspots, are “a sudden burst of energy caused by the clash, intersection, or realignment of magnetic field lines near a sunspot,” NASA said.
“You can think of it like twisting rubber bands,” Steenberg said. “If you have rubber bands that wrap around your finger, they eventually twist a lot, and break. The difference with magnetic fields is that they reconnect. And when they reconnect, in the process the glow is created.”
The larger and more complex the sunspot, Steenberg said, the more likely solar flares will occur.
How fast is the AR3038 growing?
Sunspots have doubled in size every day over the past three days, and are about 2.5 times the size of Earth, C. Alex Young, associate director of science in the Division of Heliophysical Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in an email.
Young said the sunspot produces small solar flares but “does not have the complexity of the largest flares.” There is a 30% chance that sunspots will produce medium-sized flares and a 10% chance that they will create large flares, he said.
W. Dean Bisnell, Project Scientist Solar Dynamics ObservatoryThe sunspot, he said, is a “modestly sized active region” that “has not grown at an abnormal speed and is still fairly small.”
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“AR 3038 is exactly the kind of active region we would expect at this point in the solar cycle,” he said.
The sunspot isn’t something people have to worry about, said Andrés Muñoz-Jaramillo, chief scientist at the SouthWest Research Institute in San Antonio.
“I want to stress that there is no need to panic,” he said. “It happens all the time, and we are prepared and do everything we can to predict and mitigate its effects. For the majority of us, we don’t need to sleep because of it.”
Types of solar flares and their effects on Earth
Solar flares have different levels, Muñoz Jaramillo said. Smallest class A flares, followed by B, C, M and X with the highest power. Within each letter category there is a finer scale using numbers, higher numbers indicate more severity.
Muñoz-Jaramillo said the C flares are too weak to significantly impact the ground. More severe M flares may disrupt radio communications at the Earth’s poles. X flares can disrupt satellites, communications systems, power grids, and, at their worst, cause blackouts and blackouts.
Low intensity solar flares are very common. Steinberg said X-flares are less than that. In one solar cycle, about 11 years, he said, there are typically about 2,000 M1 flares, about 175 X1 flares and about eight X10 flares. For the largest solar flares at X20 or higher, there are fewer than one per cycle. This solar cycle began in December 2019.
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Steinberg said sunspot AR3038 caused C. Although there are no M or X flares from this region, he said there is a possibility of more intense flares in the next week or so.
“The chances of flares from this region are still good because the sunspots are getting wider and more complex,” he said.
Steenburgh said the forecast for Tuesday morning flares included an 8% chance of C fires occurring in the next 24 hours, a 25% chance of M flares and a 10% chance of X flares, which he emphasized was “not really out of the ordinary.”
Steenberg said the Space Weather Prediction Center will monitor these possibilities and send out alerts as needed, although there were no solar flare warnings on Tuesday morning.
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