An Earth-pointing sunspot has the potential to cause solar flares, but experts told USA TODAY it’s far from unusual and has allayed concerns about how flares will affect the blue planet.
Active region 3038, or AR3038, has been increasing over the past week, said Rob Steenburgh, acting manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Space Weather Prediction.
“That’s what sunspots do,” he said. “Over time, usually they grow. They go through stages and then they break down.”
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 its surface.
“I guess the easiest way to put it is that sunspots are regions of magnetic activity,” Steenburgh said.
Solar flares, which typically originate from sunspots, are “a sudden burst of energy caused by the entanglement, crossing, or rearrangement of magnetic field lines near sunspots,” NASA said.
“You can think of it like the twist of rubber bands,” Steenburgh said. “If you have a few rubber bands twisting on your finger, they end up twisting too much and they break. The difference with magnetic fields is that they reconnect. And when they reconnect, it’s in this process that an eruption is generated.”
The larger and more complex a sunspot becomes, the higher the likelihood of solar flares, Steenburgh said.
The sunspot has doubled in size every day for the past three days and is about 2.5 times the size of Earth, said C. Alex Young, associate director for science in the Goddard Space Flight’s Heliophysical Science Division. NASA Center, in an email.
Young said the sunspot produces small solar flares but “lacks the complexity for larger flares.” There is a 30% chance that the sunspot will produce medium-sized flares and a 10% chance that it will create large flares, he said.
Solar Dynamics Observatory project scientist W. Dean Pesnell said the sunspot is a “modest-sized active region” that “has not grown abnormally rapidly and is still quite small in area.”
“AR 3038 is exactly the kind of active region we expect at this point in the solar cycle,” he said.
Andrés Muñoz-Jaramillo, a senior scientist at the SouthWest Research Institute in San Antonio, said sunspots were nothing to worry about for people on Earth.
“I want to emphasize that there is no need to panic,” he said. “They happen all the time, and we are prepared and doing everything we can to anticipate and mitigate their effects. For the majority of us, we don’t need to lose sleep over them.”
Solar flares have different levels, Muñoz-Jaramillo said. The smallest are Class A flares, followed by B, C, M, and X at the highest strength. Within each class of letters is a finer scale using numbers, and higher numbers indicate greater intensity.
C flares are too weak to noticeably affect Earth, Muñoz-Jaramillo said. More intense M flares can disrupt radio communications at Earth’s poles. X-ray flares can disrupt satellites, communications systems, and power grids and, at worst, cause electricity shortages and blackouts.
Low-intensity solar flares are quite common; X-ray flares are less so, Steenburgh said. In a single solar cycle, of about 11 years, there are typically about 2,000 M1 flares, about 175 X1 flares and about eight X10 flares, he said. For the largest solar flares at X20 or greater, there is less than one per cycle. This solar cycle began in December 2019.
Sunspot AR3038 caused C flares, Steenburgh said. Although there were no M or X eruptions in this area, he said there is potential for more intense eruptions over the next week.
The sun triggers a moderate solar flare
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